Your Schools

Focused on the mayor’s race? Here’s why another election deserves your attention

Elyse Dashew, now vice chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, won an at-large seat in 2015. This year 19 people are campaigning for six district seats.
Elyse Dashew, now vice chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, won an at-large seat in 2015. This year 19 people are campaigning for six district seats. Observer file photo

Every two years I find myself trying to make the case that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board race deserves at least as much public attention as the Charlotte mayor’s race.

My logic is impeccable: CMS affects more people in a larger area. Board members control a bigger budget and oversee a much larger work force, while the mayor has only a bully pulpit and a tie-breaker vote.

And, as almost everyone agrees, people around here care intensely about education.

But every two years a big chunk of the public makes a fool of me by ignoring the CMS race while going to mayoral forums to ask what the candidates will do to fix schools. (Correct answer: “Nothing. That’s not our job.”)

OK, this year’s school board race, with 19 people vying for six district seats, may not be as sexy as watching Jennifer, Joel, Kenny and Vi duke it out in a big-spending mayoral campaign. But here are five reasons why getting engaged with the board campaign is a smart move for anyone who lives in Mecklenburg County.

1. The obvious: Schools matter.

If you have kids enrolled I don’t have to tell you that. But even if you don’t, school board decisions affect your neighborhood’s character and property values, as well as the civic and economic vitality of the region.

And while the school board can’t tax you, it decides how to spend about $1.4 billion a year of your state, county and federal tax money.

2. Change is in the air.

Once someone wins a seat it’s easier to keep it in future elections. So the biggest changes on any elected body tend to come when incumbents step down.

Six of the nine school board seats are up for election this year (the other three come up in 2019), and three of those have no incumbent in the race. A fourth, District 3, has an appointed incumbent, Ruby Jones, who has never campaigned for office before.

In other words, the CMS board will have at least three and as many as six new members starting in December. They’ll work with a new superintendent, Clayton Wilcox, who was sworn in July 3. And they’ll decide how CMS moves forward after a two-year stretch where the leadership change and a prolonged student assignment review dominated the political agenda.

3. Low turnout and social media can amp up your influence.

Turnout is consistently well under 20 percent for off-year elections. So if you merely cast a ballot, it’s as if you get to speak for four or five of your less motivated neighbors.

If you research the candidates and lend your support, your voice gets even louder. These days you don’t even have to pound doors or lick envelopes. Social media lets you offer personal endorsements and drum up enthusiasm for races where motivation and turnout provide a crucial edge.

By the way, that’s true for journalism as well. In today’s era of digital readership and instant analytics, reading and sharing stories ensures that the kind of reporting you value continues. We know conflict and craziness grab readers, so if you want substantive coverage of civic issues, do all you can to get those stories on the charts.

4. It’s nonpartisan.

Mecklenburg County has more than 217,500 unaffiliated voters. And countless Democrats and Republicans have bemoaned the toxic partisanship that hangs over national, state and local politics.

The school board race is nonpartisan. That doesn’t mean parties and candidates won’t mention their affiliation (they will), but it does mean there’s no primary and no D or R next to names on the ballot. Whoever gets elected has to work with a Democrat-dominated board of commissioners and a Republican-dominated state legislature, both of which control the money for CMS.

In other words, folks who are best at waving the partisan flag and lobbing mudballs at the other team won’t be successful as candidates or board members. You can expect to hear these folks talk about real issues that affect your community.

5. It’s relatively easy.

If you’re a dutiful voter, you know how daunting it can be to look at the long ballots during even-numbered years. District voting means you only have to make a pick in one school board race this year.

If you’re not sure which district you live in, go to and choose “Check your voter registration.” And if you’re not registered yet, you have until October (Friday the 13th, in fact) to sign up and vote on Nov. 7.

While you can only vote for one district board member, you can campaign for as many as you like (see No. 3).

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms