A request for a one-word answer kicked off more than an hour of lively debate Tuesday among eight people seeking seats on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.
Jeffrey Rivenbark, moderator of the forum hosted by the League of Women Voters and WTVI, opened by asking for a yes-or-no answer on whether the candidates support a superintendent search.
Seven – Angela Ambroise, Janeen Bryant, Larry Bumgarner, Elyse Dashew, Ericka Ellis-Stewart, Levester Flowers and Mary McCray – said yes. Jeremy Stephenson said no, elaborating on the follow-up round that he wants to extend the tenure of Superintendent Ann Clark.
“I strongly feel that Ann Clark is the best candidate we have available right now,” Stephenson said. “There are so many people crying out, ‘Keep Ann Clark.’ ”
The debate, which airs Sunday afternoon on WTVI, also brought back-and-forth on student assignment, magnet schools, teacher pay and whether segregation has hurt Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
The Nov. 3 election will determine the three at-large members of the nine-person board. Ellis-Stewart and McCray are seeking a second term, while Tim Morgan is not running.
A ninth candidate, Amelia Stinson-Wesley, missed the taping because of a health issue.
Time to start search?
Leadership is one of the most urgent issues facing the board
Heath Morrison, hired from Reno, Nev., after a national search in 2012, resigned abruptly last November after the CMS attorney told the board he had bullied staff members and misled the board about costs for a new school. Clark, a 32-year veteran of CMS who was Morrison’s deputy, became superintendent through July 31, 2016.
Her contract says that at Clark’s request, the board “will not consider Clark for nor offer Clark the Long-Term Position.” But some board members and community leaders have since said they’d like to see that contract revised to extend her term, and Clark has not closed the door on that possibility. Halfway through Clark’s 18-month contract, the board has taken no action on launching a search.
Ambroise described herself as “a supporter of Ann Clark” but said she’d also like to look at other contenders. Other candidates talked about the importance of getting the community involved in a search for someone who can improve schools, support employees, lobby state and county officials and unite a county with a wide range of views about education. They did not mention Clark or any other individuals.
Busing and magnets
Questions about student assignment and whether segregation has hurt CMS sparked a lot of discussion of magnet schools and busing.
The board has launched a review of student assignment, with a goal of making changes that take effect in 2017-18. A committee is still working on guiding principles. Most board members have said they want to break up the concentrations of poverty that characterize the district’s lowest-performing schools, but they have not agreed on how to do that.
Ambroise and McCray talked about the importance of working with city and county officials to create neighborhoods that are more economically diverse, saying schools can’t counter segregation or isolation without help. “Our schools can’t be any better than the neighborhoods where they sit,” McCray said.
Ambroise, who chose a magnet program in a high-poverty neighborhood school for her child, said partial magnets also hold promise for boosting diversity.
Bryant said diversity is her top priority because “our schools are resegregating.” She said improving partial magnets to attract families to high-poverty schools is “a place to start,” but more extensive assignment changes could be needed.
Dashew and Ellis-Stewart said they think it’s essential to break up the concentrations of poverty that create academic hurdles for many students, but both said they don’t want to rely on changing boundaries and busing students to do that.
“I don’t see forced busing in the old-fashioned way as a solution,” Dashew said.
Flowers said expanding magnets is the best way to boost diversity and keep schools attractive to parents who might otherwise choose charters or private schools. He said boundaries for neighborhood schools should send families to the nearest school.
Stephenson said stability and close-to-home schools are more important to him than reassigning students for diversity. “We don’t need major changes, and I don’t think major changes are wanted in the community,” he said.
Bumgarner offered few specifics, saying he will focus exclusively on education.
Playing yellow cards
The format allowed candidates to challenge each other, which led to some interesting exchanges.
Bumgarner, who is white and lives in suburban Mint Hill, and Ambroise, who is black and lives in Charlotte’s Villa Heights neighborhood, exhausted their yellow challenge cards going back and forth over the biggest problem for schools in high-poverty urban neighborhoods.
Bumgarner insisted it’s the prevalence of crime, saying at one point that “if I lived in some of those neighborhoods I would join a gang.” He said his expertise comes from volunteer work in inner-city schools.
Ambroise, who says her neighborhood has been labeled high-crime, said affordable housing and support for students and families are more important. “We’ve got to connect education policy and housing policy,” she said.
Dashew and Stephenson sparred over personal issues. Dashew questioned the back story on an endorsement Stephenson touted. Stephenson, who has said he may send his 4-year-old daughter to a charter school next year, questioned Dashew’s decision to send her children to a CMS magnet school instead of their neighborhood school.
Voting for school board
Nine candidates are on the nonpartisan countywide ballot for Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board. Voters can choose up to three, and the top three will win four-year terms on the board, joining six district representatives.
Early voting is going on through Saturday and Nov. 3 is election day.
The city and school board debates will air Sunday on WTVI, starting at 2 p.m.
Learn more about the candidates at www.charlotteobserver.com/election