For Jennifer Roberts, politics followed school service

Democratic Mayoral candidate Jennifer Roberts greets Kara Parker, 11, left, at the annual Mallard Creek BBQ event at Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church, which feed folks' need for pulled pork, Brunswick stew and politicians.
Democratic Mayoral candidate Jennifer Roberts greets Kara Parker, 11, left, at the annual Mallard Creek BBQ event at Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church, which feed folks' need for pulled pork, Brunswick stew and politicians. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

When Jennifer Roberts became a kindergarten school room parent 13 years ago, she took on tasks beyond organizing holiday parties and buying gifts for teachers.

Roberts turned the role into a de facto teacher assistant at Smith Language Academy. She spent three days a week in class. She helped struggling students read in English, was able to help them speak in French.

“She was always there,” said Buku Guzeh, the French immersion teacher who is now an assistant principal at Waddell Language Academy. “Some (room parents) come just for room functions.”

Roberts, who was an adjunct professor at UNC Charlotte at the time, said the experience in the Smith classroom motivated her to run for public office two years later, when her second and youngest child entered kindergarten. She said she the rhetoric she heard from elected officials about problems at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools didn’t match what she saw in the classroom.

“What I heard from elected officials was that schools were bloated,” she said. “I saw a disconnect between the reality and what was being voiced by our leaders.”

Roberts was elected as a county commissioner in 2004 and served for eight years.

Starting in 2006, she chaired the board for six years before she lost she job at the end of 2011. In a 5-4 vote, then Democrat Harold Cogdell voted with the four Republicans commissioners to oust her.

She is now running for mayor against Republican Edwin Peacock. In the Democratic primary, she defeated council members Michael Barnes and David Howard, and then Mayor Dan Clodfelter in a run-off.

Launching early campaign

Roberts’ story about being a room parent is illustrative in two ways.

First, as a candidate for mayor, she has campaigned on two main issues: Expanding economic opportunity to low-income areas and improving schools. She has made schools a focus of her campaign even though the city of Charlotte has little formal role in education.

The second is that friends and opponents agree that Roberts is relentless in how much time she spends on an issue, much as she did as a volunteer room parent.

One of her opponents in the Democratic primary was courting an influential voter at a public event. His heart sank when he realized Roberts had already talked to her at great length in the voter’s living room.

Soon after Patrick Cannon was arrested in March 2014, Roberts lobbied City Council to be appointed to the job. She said she pulled her name from consideration because council members didn’t want the appointed mayor to run for the job this year; council members at the time said they didn’t think she was the best person for the job.

Undeterred, Roberts then announced in May 2014 that she was running for mayor. She has been campaigning full time for 19 months. Roberts is involved in numerous organizations as an activist and consultant, but wasn’t – and isn’t –working a traditional full-time job.

The other Democrats who ran didn’t make noises about running until January.

“She shows up at events not to hand out her card, but to listen,” said June Lambla, a member of the board of directors of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation who is a personal friend of Roberts. “That’s really important. I have been impressed. She will show up. She will sit in the back. She is there to listen and understand the issues.”

Roberts said she had considered running for office before becoming a room parent, but that the experience pushed her toward making that choice. She didn’t know what office she would pursue.

“It was a natural progression (from volunteer to elected office),” said Lydia Olmsted, a friend who knew Roberts from that period. “She was always willing to debate issues. She would say, ‘What do you think about this? How can we make a difference?’ She was always a great springboard for concerns in general.”

Even though the city plays little direct role in schools, Roberts wants to create an organization to give parents information on after-school options for students. She said there are a jumble of programs – some run by CMS, some run by private companies and nonprofits.

Supporting the schools

She said she would raise private money to fund the organization, which could also evaluate the quality of different after-care programs.

Roberts also said the city could restore funding to pay for school police officers and crossing guards, a responsibility now carried by CMS.

The city spent about $230,000 a year on crossing guards in the past. The city has made CMS pay an additional $2 million a year for school resource officers.

She said the city could also consider further subsidizing transit fares for students and trying to make bus schedules work for high school students.

Clodfelter’s campaign attacked Roberts over the issue of resources for education, accusing Roberts of overseeing a decline in CMS funding when she served as commissioners chairman. Roberts said Clodfelter’s claim was inaccurate, and it didn’t account for money restored to CMS in later years as the economy improved.

Roberts survived Clodfelter’s criticism of school funding as well as his questions over her role in the 2011 botched countywide property revaluation. Tens of thousands of property owners complained that their valuations were too high, and a consultant later agreed that the values were inflated.

In the general election, Peacock has questioned Roberts’ “leadership” on the issue.

As the county received tens of thousands of complaints, Roberts at first defended how the county handled the revaluation. But she later reversed course, and voted in May 2012 to conduct a new revaluation.

The vote was 6-3. Roberts voted with four Republicans and Cogdell, who has become an independent. During a debate with Peacock Wednesday, she cited the vote as an example of her independence, when she went against fellow Democrats.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

Jennifer Roberts

Age: 55.

Hometown: Raleigh, grew up in Charlotte.

Family: Husband, two children.

Education: UNC-Chapel Hill, English and math major, summa cum laude; University of Toronto, master’s degree in European history; Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, master’s degree in international affairs.

Profession: Community advocate, consultant.

Political involvement: County commissioner, 2004-2012.

Civic involvement: Board president of International House; vice president of the Choir School at St. Peter’s; leadership council for United Negro College Fund; raised money for domestic violence shelter on West Boulevard.

Worth knowing: “I played four years of varsity volleyball at Chapel Hill. I was captain my senior year.”