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After the election, 4 make-or-break questions for the CMS board

After Tuesday’s election, you might think members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board could collectively exhale and relax.

Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Mary McCray, the two incumbents on the nine-person slate, won re-election with even more votes than they got four years ago.

Jeremy Stephenson, a challenger who tried to rally voters against the direction the board is taking on student assignment, fell more than 6,000 votes below Elyse Dashew, whose campaign was far more supportive of the current board. Dashew will join the board in December; Stephenson won’t.

So everyone’s happy with the way things are going, right?

Not necessarily.

Unless the board can quickly convince the public that there’s a clear, sensible plan for leadership and student assignment, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools could face eruptions of anger and anxiety that cross political, racial and geographic boundaries.

In recent weeks, families in popular suburban neighborhood schools have been bombarded with Stephenson campaign messages saying CMS is preparing to bus their kids to lower-performing schools. Those messages may not have propelled him into office, but they clearly struck a chord.

“There’s still a lot of anxiety,” Tim Morgan, the board’s departing vice chair, said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, urban families who feel like their communities were short-shrifted during school closings five years ago have demanded immediate answers on a superintendent search.

The political campaign is over, but the “voting” that matters most lies just ahead. Starting in January, families will weigh whether their children will attend CMS, charters or private schools next year.

The current board will meet one last time on Tuesday, wrapping up proposed changes for 2016-17 and a new teacher-allotment formula. In December, Morgan will step down and Dashew will be sworn in.

Here are four questions the group must answer in fairly short order.

1. Who leads the board?

Choosing a chair and vice chair will be the first order of business at the December meeting. It may sound trivial, but those choices are the first symbol of how the board plans to balance power and access.

When McCray and Ellis-Stewart were elected four years ago, giving Democrats a majority, they took the top two spots and sent a “step aside, we’re in charge now” message to some of their colleagues. Republican and unaffiliated members balked and the board had a rocky year.

For the last three years, the team of McCray, an African-American Democrat, and Morgan, a white Republican, brought a greater sense of balance. Morgan, of course, will be gone. McCray said Wednesday that she hasn’t thought about whether she wants to continue as chair.

I’m willing to bet that wrangling over those jobs has already begun. When Dashew, a Democrat, replaces Morgan the tally will be six Democrats, two Republicans and one unaffiliated voter. Many of the experienced members have leadership experience – Ellis-Stewart and the unaffiliated Eric Davis have both chaired the board, and senior member Tom Tate leads the board’s policy committee – so it’s likely a lot of combinations are being discussed.

2. What is Ann Clark’s status?

Clark is halfway through an 18-month contract as superintendent. When it was signed in January, Clark and the board said she wasn’t interested in a longer stint. The board said it would launch a search, and Clark’s contract specifies that she won’t be considered.

But there has been no visible action on a search, leading to recent protests claiming that “white male Republicans” are conducting a behind-the-scenes campaign to extend Clark’s tenure without consulting the black community.

When I asked Clark for an update Wednesday, she said what she’s been saying in recent weeks: Questions about her future are in the board’s hands.

If the board has the votes and the will to revise Clark’s contract and keep her longer, it needs to act quickly, take the heat and move on. If not, members need to start a search and loop the public in on the plans.

Some have suggested the board should do both: Launch a search and let Clark be a candidate. I don’t see that happening. It would be distracting for Clark to run the district while campaigning to keep her job. Outside candidates might perceive the search as rigged in her favor. And the people who are angry about closed-door talks would be further antagonized if the board and Clark change the terms of their agreement now.

3. Will the board hit “pause” on student assignment?

If the board begins a superintendent search, there’s an immediate follow-up question: Will it delay its plans to make big decisions about where kids go to school?

A superintendent search is a monumental task that requires extensive public engagement. Ditto for a deep dive into boundaries, diversity, magnets, transportation, poverty and alternatives for low-performing schools.

The current plan calls for both to take place in the coming year. Many think it would be impractical and misguided to slog ahead with student assignment, only to present a new superintendent with mostly finished plans.

For now, uncertainty reigns. Stephenson and his supporters may have sounded the “fight busing” alarm for political purposes, but the message filled a void left by the board’s process. Last month the policy committee reviewed three possible options, ranging from magnet lotteries designed to promote diversity to boundaries drawn to balance poverty levels at neighborhood schools. Members spent so much time wrangling over the introduction that they ran out of time before discussing the most controversial option, which calls for using such factors as “race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status and neighborhood viability” to assign students.

4. Who cares?

Just under 95,000 Mecklenburg County residents voted Tuesday, and an unknown number of them skipped the school board race.

Ellis-Stewart topped the school board ballot with not quite 37,000 votes.

More than 548,000 registered voters stayed home.

Low voter turnout is traditional in CMS board races, which don’t ride the tails of big national and state races. There are certainly other ways to engage with public education.

But just a couple of weeks ago, UNC-Chapel Hill professor James Jones talked about the danger of a community in which the older, affluent white people who tend to vote and control power disengage from public schools that increasingly serve black, brown and lower-income students. That pattern, found in cities across America, leads to abandoned neighborhoods and an anemic economy, he said.

Controversial decisions have a way of drawing attention to CMS, and some of those doubtless lie ahead. The board’s biggest challenge may be persuading people to get engaged before they get mad.

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

What’s next?

▪ The full board meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St. Agenda items include changes to magnet busing and a handful of academic programs for 2016-17. Public comments will be taken.

▪ The board’s policy committee meets at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 12 in Room 528 of the Government Center to continue its review of student assignment principles. The public may attend but not comment.

▪ Find details, including agendas, instructions for signing up to speak and links to live-streaming of the full board meeting, at

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