Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board: Jeremy Stephenson on the issues

Name: Jeremy Stephenson

Hometown: Charlotte for 10 years and loving it

Neighborhood: Southeast Charlotte

Family: Wife, Katherine, Daughter, Hazel (4)

CMS connections: Represent my neighborhood on school assignment issues, campaign for school bonds, volunteer as EOG proctor, and court-appointed attorney via Council for Children's rights.

Education: BA (History), Univ. of Virginia; JD, Loyola Univ. Chicago

Occupation: Attorney

Political experience: First time candidate

Community service: 8 years volunteer pro bono attorney Council for Children's Rights, approx. 100 hours/year

Party affiliation: Republican

Campaign contact info: jeremy@stephensonforschoolboard.com; 704-574-3492; stephensonforschoolboard.com; on Twitter

Why are you running for school board?

I come from a family of teachers. Professionally, as a labor and employment attorney working with HR professionals, I see the need of employers for a trained workforce, the value of robust and competent employee relations to any successful enterprise, and the need for successful schools for companies to relocate and expand. Upon birth of my daughter four years ago, I became very interested in our schools, advocating for my neighborhood on school assignment issues. As a pro bono volunteer attorney for eight years, I have seen corners of this County that few see. I have seen lightning in a bottle at Olympic High School, turning 53% EOG scores to into the 80's, and East Meck, turning 73% graduation to 90%. Performance is rising, but we must make the diploma worth more.

What are your top priorities for the district?

(1) Hire an excellent superintendent;

(2) Preserve broad stability in student assignment while addressing specific issues of concentrated underperformance and serious overcrowding;

(3) Give every parent more than one high quality choice for their child, both strong proximate home school and geographically and substantively diverse magnets.

What are your thoughts on hiring a superintendent?

If possible find a way for Ann Clark to stay.

Her resume is impeccable, and there are no direct-reports inside CMS capable of taking the role. A national search costing many tens of thousands of dollars, twelve months of time, to produce a similar resume, but lacking her thirty years of local connections, would waste taxpayer money and be a poor strategic business decision.

We hired national superstars twice before. A chief executive must find and train their own replacement. Heath Morrison failed in that aspect. When Chief Monroe retired, the bench he assembled, including Chief Putney, saved tens of thousands of dollars and months of search.

We are making great progress as discussed above. Since taking the reins in January 2015, Ann has done an amazing job. We do not need a superman or wonder woman to tear up the playbook and impose their own vision, and who does not know our town. We need to build upon progress, and build bridges between silos, across urban and suburban, CMS and municipal governments, and CMS and the General Assembly.

What are your goals for student assignment?

I am more personally familiar with CMS Board Policy JCA than any other candidate, and its “guarantee” of neighborhood home schools in proximity to a child’s residence, where my neighborhood has two closer elementary schools, three closer middle schools, and is less than one mile from Providence but bused to East Meck almost nine miles away.

In my four years of advocacy on this issue, I was steeped in the history of student assignment in our County, including the litigation that gave rise to race-based busing, and the litigation that ended it.

The Board’s review must be intentional and inclusive listening to what current K-12 parents want. In my travels around the County, the recurring demand from such parents is for stability in current boundaries, excellent home schools, and geographically and substantively diverse magnet choices. As noted, achievement among all students is soaring; we do not need massive wholesale change. Massive change would not only prompt lawsuits, but now we have unlimited Charters, and even vouchers. As the Observer smartly observed, CMS is competing for students, and budget, every day, and a massive change that might send families running to the doors cannot be the first or best option.

What should CMS do to address persistently low performance by large numbers of students at many schools?

CMS is performing better than ever before; test scores and graduation rates are at all-time highs among all cohorts, even as the percentage of economically disadvantaged continues to rise. East Meck moved graduation rates from 2009 of 73% to 90% today. Olympic HS in 2005 had composite EOG of 53%, and today, after Gates Foundation initiative and heavy involvement of area businesses, those rates are closer to 90% with the same Title One demographic profile as before. Alignment SouthWest Charlotte provides a model of success in connecting elementary and middle feeder programs to high schools and employers, with community and faith groups. Such results cannot be denied, and offer case studies of best practices to be replicated across the County.

What should CMS do to attract, motivate and keep strong teachers?

I work with businesses every day that cannot pay the highest market rates, and while I will advocate for teacher pay to County and General Assembly, pay itself is not in BoE control.

CMS must recruit, develop, retain and reward a premier workforce through multiple career pathways, individualized professional development, quality appraisals, and leadership development. CMS should optimize district performance and accountability by strengthening data use, processes and systems, maintaining data integrity and use of data decision-making. The three-year grant from the Belk Foundation to develop new roles for excellent teachers, such as Senior Reach and Mast Reach Teachers, and Multi-classroom Level Teachers, are exciting.

I also suggest a grade 11-12 teaching academy magnet on the campus of UNCC College of Education. We have a superb program in our backyard, already with a highly successful Early College STEM magnet. If a student wants to become a teacher, we must fan that flame, devote resources, and invest in our own future workforce like other smart progressive businesses.

What is the district's biggest challenge, and how would you address it?

Mecklenburg County experiences unprecedented growth, fastest in the nation, for many years in a row, with no sign of slowing. There are 2,100 homes going in at Providence and 485, with no high school between Providence and Ardrey Kell. We lack time, or money, for the next 80 acre, $100 million, 15 year construction project, and must think creatively; if Elevation Church can upfit a big box, and charters function in office buildings, we need to think outside our comfort zone to meet needs. At the same time, students performing at 20% proficiency are an academic emergency demanding immediate focused action, including confrontation of problems outside the school walls. If parents will not accept personal responsibility for their child's education, we will face a steep and possibly insurmountable hurdle. CMS is in competition for students every day, in a limited budget environment, with unlimited charters and vouchers, and if all those who can leave do so, the result may be fiscally unsustainable at 80% poverty or higher.

What is the best thing about CMS?

With great news coming out of CMS each and every day, it is too hard to choose. CMS is getting better and better results every year despite rising levels of poverty. "Career readiness speed dating"; successes at Olympic and Alignment SW Charlotte can and will be replicated, bringing promising career opportunities to communities that need them most. A teacher winning a Tony award? Twitter feed in a different world language every week? Partnership with the Library system? Read Charlotte? Lake Norman Educational Collaborative? Perhaps CMS getting much better at sharing all of the different "best things", is itself the best thing.

What else should voters know about you?

(1) I am an Eagle Scout, and firmly believe that family values, including education, begin at home; (2) I support the Green Teacher Network and solutions to lack of affordable healthy food and "food deserts" in communities of poverty; (3) I believe in the vital role of physical exercise to physical and mental health, running at 5:30 a.m.