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Sonja Gantt brings famous face to obscure CMS Foundation

When news anchor Sonja Gantt announced she would leave WCNC to lead the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Foundation, many people voiced a two-pronged reaction:

1. Gantt is great!

2. What’s the CMS Foundation?

The confusion is understandable, even though former Superintendent James Pughsley created the foundation more than a decade ago. Pughsley’s vision was to raise money that would support CMS teachers. But he left about a year later, and as CMS went through the superintendent shuffle the foundation fell dormant.

Current Superintendent Ann Clark – the fifth since Pughsley resigned in 2005 – decided to revive it. Her inspiration, she says, was a citizens’ task force created by her predecessor, Heath Morrison.

Morrison departed hastily last year, but Clark, who was deputy at the time, says the 22 task force reports generated in 2013 haven’t been forgotten. One of those panels is about to step into the ongoing student assignment review. Another called for reviving the foundation with independent community leadership, rather than leaving it as a neglected branch of the district.

Clark is recruiting an independent board for the foundation, but first she advertised for an executive director. And that posting landed just as Gantt, with 28 years in broadcasting under her belt, was putting out feelers for a new career.

Gantt, 50, says she has always loved telling stories and working with children. She wavered between studying journalism or education at UNC-Chapel Hill. The former won out, but she has always enjoyed reporting and volunteering in schools.

The foundation job offered Gantt a chance to make a difference in education while putting her reporting skills and community contacts to use. She envisions working with the CMS TV crew to produce reports on how grants and donations are going to use.

“I do know how to tell a story,” Gantt said. “I think I’m going to get a chance to do that.”

Gantt brings a passion for education, deep community roots and the recognition that comes from a long career in local broadcasting. She’s the daughter of Harvey Gantt, an architect and former Charlotte mayor, and Cindy Gantt, an accountant. She graduated from East Mecklenburg High in 1983 and is a CMS parent, with a son at Mallard Creek High and a daughter who has graduated.

“She was an extraordinary candidate,” Clark said. “I’m very excited about her.”

A chance to innovate

Gantt will be a CMS employee, making just under $105,000 a year. She’ll eventually report to a board of corporate and community members, a hybrid job similar to that of the Project LIFT superintendent.

As Project LIFT illustrates, community support for CMS has run strong even without the foundation. Corporations and local foundations worked with the Foundation for the Carolinas to create a five-year, $55 million effort to turn around West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools. The money has paid for such extras as year-round school calendars, student technology and teacher recruitment bonuses.

Gantt’s job will be to supplement such efforts, not push them aside. One of her assignments is to build on Project LIFT initiatives that yield results (it’s midway through Year Four, with a third-year evaluation due soon) by raising money to extend successful strategies.

Another is modeled on East Meck’s All-Star Teacher Initiative. When Bob Silver donated $500,000 to his alma mater in 2006, Gantt was one of the fellow alumni he tapped to rally matching donations. The fund is still paying for classroom projects, giving all teachers a school supply stipend and supporting travel to conferences.

“We all talk about teacher pay. This is a way to support teachers,” Gantt said.

The foundation’s third goal is to expand on the district’s literacy efforts. Clark is already pushing CMS employees to volunteer to read with struggling students, and local and national donors are already contributing.

With all the ongoing efforts – not to mention a $1.4 billion annual budget – it might seem excessive to launch another push for grants and donations. But CMS has 146,000 students and 168 schools. Private projects tend to target a small segment of that group, while state and federal money comes with rules about how it must be spent.

“If you want to support new ideas,” Gantt said, “that (private) money is critical.”

Money on hand

The foundation may have drifted over the past 11 years, but as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization it was available to channel tax-exempt donations. Some came from corporations taking on big projects, while others came from individuals contributing to scholarship funds to honor CMS employees who died or retired.

Even before Gantt and the new board start raising money the foundation has just over $623,000 on hand, according to CMS. That includes two recent large gifts: $250,000 from the Hornets for teachers and $125,000 from Wells Fargo for literacy.

The Hornets grants to teachers have already started, with awards being made to teachers who outline innovative projects that aren’t covered through regular budgets. Gantt is eager to slip back into reporter mode and create videos that will show the Hornets where the money is going, encourage more teachers to apply and let prospective donors see the potential.

Christmas Eve is Gantt’s last day with WCNC. She starts her new job Jan. 4, as kids return to school from their break.

She’s aware that Clark’s contract ends this summer. The school board will make search plans in January, and while there has been talk about extending Clark’s tenure, it’s possible that the foundation could once again get lost in leadership churn.

That’s one reason the task force recommended independent oversight; community support wouldn’t be sidetracked by such changes. And Gantt says a thriving foundation, with buy-in from community leaders, is likely to be a winner with any superintendent.

“If (Clark) is here or not here, the district’s still here,” Gantt said. “The teachers are still here. The kids are still here.”

CMS Foundation projects

Here are some of the donations that have passed through the CMS Foundation in recent years, according to a list provided by the district and IRS reports.

Teacher innovation grants

Charlotte Hornets donated $250,000 to fund projects proposed by teachers. So far $127,754 has been distributed.

Belk Spirit Contest

In 2012-’13 and 2013-’14 the foundation reported distributing a total of $245,000 in “an artwork contest depicting the connections between the Belk Bowl and technology.” Prize money was to be used for education technology.

First Ward garden

The 2011-’12 IRS report lists $150,000 for a Wells Fargo Sense and Science Garden at First Ward Elementary as the year’s major project.

Parent University

The foundation channeled $100,000 in donations over two years to Parent University, an initiative launched by former Superintendent Peter Gorman to help parents learn how to better support their children’s education.

Memorial scholarships

The district has collected almost $46,000 in donations to memorial funds for five former CMS employees. So far about $13,500 has been distributed in scholarships.

Josh Groban endowment

In 2007 singer Josh Groban made a highly publicized $150,000 donation to CMS, to be invested as an endowment with income going to performing arts magnet schools. The CMS tally lists no disbursements from that gift.

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