Your Schools

The odd man out, the super-voting district and other facts about your new CMS board

The board that oversees Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will have three new members in December.
The board that oversees Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will have three new members in December.

As a Republican, Sean Strain knew he’d be in the minority if he won a seat on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.

But when he’s sworn in next month he’ll also become the lone representative of another constituency: Men.

Margaret Marshall, who will be one of eight women on the nine-member board, joins Strain as one of three newcomers elected Tuesday. She won her seat with a vote total that dwarfs that of the other five winners, largely because her district engaged at far higher levels.

On one level, the election brought few surprises for CMS. All three incumbents got re-elected, and all three departing members saw their preferred successors prevail.

That doesn’t mean the new board will be be homogenous. Strain and fellow newcomer Carol Sawyer, for instance, have spent the past two years fiercely lobbying for very different perspectives on student assignment. It’s just that their philosophical clashes are likely to be similar to those between Paul Bailey and Tom Tate, whom they’ll replace.

But Tuesday’s results did bring some interesting twists. Some could be significant for people who care about public education, while others are just fun to talk about. Here are five questions that came to my mind as the tallies came in.

Q. Where are the young people?

A: Charlotte City Council will see an influx of young energy, with five newcomers under 40 elected Tuesday. Not so the school board, even though its mission centers on youth. The race did pull a few millennials but none of them won.

Sean Strain
Sean Strain, new District 6 school board member

The new board will have no one under 40 and only three people under 50 (Strain and at-large members Ericka-Ellis Stewart and Elyse Dashew). Only three of the nine members – Strain, Dashew and Rhonda Lennon, who won a third term – have school-age children.

Board Chair Mary McCray suspects that’s related to the time required; the board job is considered part-time, but it requires a huge amount of reading, data-crunching and school visits. Lennon has talked about the challenge of doing the work while raising kids.

Q. Where are the men?

A: The current board has three men, none of whom ran for re-election. Six of the 20 people who filed for the six district seats were male, with Strain emerging as the only winner.

That’s not the norm. When the National School Boards Association last polled its members, just over half were male, though the ratio tended to flip in larger districts. The school boards in Wake and Guilford counties each have five women and four men.

So what’s up in Mecklenburg? McCray chuckled at the question: “As you know yourself, girls rule!”

Strain couldn’t chat Wednesday about gender roles. But Lennon, the only other Republican on the board, offered this observation with a laugh: “Sean’s a tough guy. I guess he better be able to handle it.”

Lennon McCray
Board Chair Mary McCray, left, speaks with member Rhonda Lennon before a May meeting. Jeff Siner

Q. Where are the educators?

A: Four of the six district races featured candidates who are educators and/or retired CMS employees, but the only one who won was Ruby Jones, who kept the District 3 seat she was appointed to three years ago. Jones and McCray are both retired teachers; the other seven members have engaged with public schools as parents, volunteers and advocates.

Current CMS employees can’t serve on the board, which means any who run must be prepared to resign if elected. McCray said she’d like to see more former educators run – “they need to lend their voice” – but she notes that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators (which McCray used to head) endorsed all six winning candidates.

Q. What’s up in District 5?

A: Marshall pulled 21,177 votes in a three-way contest to represent District 5. The other district winners landed their seats with tallies ranging from 4,771 (Jones, in a six-way District 2 race) to 11,528 (Strain, against one competitor for District 6).

Margaret Marshall
Margaret Marshall, new District 5 school board member HANDOUT

That’s not because her district is huge (two have more registered voters) or because her opponents did so badly (they got almost 12,000 votes combined). It’s because just over 33,000 people cast ballots in the District 5 race, a 27 percent participation rate in the school board race. No other district topped 17 percent. Countywide voter turnout was 21 percent, including people who may have voted in municipal races and skipped the school board.

District 5 is a wedge of south/central Charlotte that encompasses some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. Candidates who can win there tend to be well organized and spend significant money, and Marshall was no exception.

Marshall, a former CMS parent and longtime volunteer, says she tapped networks built over the years, knowing she’d face a challenge as an unaffiliated voter going up against two Republicans. She reported raising more than $50,000 as of the October report, far more than Jeremy Stephenson and Jim Peterson combined.

“I knew I was going to have to work two times as hard because I couldn’t rely on help from either party,” Marshall said Wednesday.

She said a lot of District 5 voters were enthusiastic about voting for Republican mayoral candidate Kenny Smith, who lost. But she said many of them wanted a school board member who was truly nonpartisan, knew the district’s history and had a track record of working with schools.

Still, she admits, “I was shocked at my totals.”

Q. Who’s that representing District 1?

A: Lennon has represented the northern suburbs since 2009, and voters there just sent her back for four more years. So they may be confused to learn that Lennon won’t be representing them after next month.

But Rhonda Cheek will. She’s the same person, of course, but she plans to change her name after a January wedding.

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