Opinion

A CMS school board candidate’s inflammatory post on integration

School board candidate Jeremy Stephenson says other candidates are advocating “race-based busing.”
School board candidate Jeremy Stephenson says other candidates are advocating “race-based busing.” rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

With primary season officially over for Charlotte, the city and county’s attention turns toward the general election and a new issue that’s sure to frame school board races and more.

That would be school integration, specifically the lack of it and how Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools should fix it. Most school board candidates would rather not talk about it until, say, the day after election day Nov. 3, because someone will be unhappy no matter what they say.

At least one candidate did talk about integration, however, and he’s learning just how flammable the issue is.

Jeremy Stephenson, a candidate endorsed by outgoing board member Tim Morgan and others, said this on his campaign’s Facebook page in August:

“Several other candidates are now publicly, unabashedly calling for a return of race-based busing.”

Then he described what race-based busing is to him:

“It matters not whether you live within walking distance of a school if you are the wrong color skin, or your W2 is too high.”

Yikes. That’s not the kind of divisive language you use if you’re campaigning as someone who can bring all stakeholders to the table for important discussions, as Stephenson is.

The post went widely unnoticed at first, but a screen shot of it eventually started to circulate in education circles. That’s not surprising, with the election approaching. I received it from a couple of people late last month.

District 5 school board member Eric Davis saw it, too. He had endorsed Stephenson early on because he saw the candidate as someone he could work with on the board. He’s pulled the endorsement because of the post. I’ve called others who’ve endorsed Stephenson but haven’t heard back.

Stephenson has deleted the Facebook post. “I put it a bit too tongue-in-cheek,” he said. “It was poorly worded.”

It was that and more. The candidates Stephenson referenced in the post had answered an Observer questionnaire and said that “diversity” was their top objective. Stephenson says if you have “diversity” as your top goal, you must be talking about busing. But that’s not necessarily true – there are plenty of education advocates, including CMS school board members, who champion diversity but stop short of busing.

How do you get there, then? That’s a question for the next three weeks and well beyond in Charlotte. But it’s a discussion that’s hard enough without coded, flammable language.

Stephenson, you should know, seems genuinely interested in confronting the challenge of generational poverty in schools and Charlotte; among other pursuits, he’s a pro bono attorney for the Council for Children’s Rights. But now, he’s given into language that might appeal to some of his south Charlotte neighbors. People will wonder: Does he really want to find a solution for schools – or just a fix that doesn’t involve him?

He understands that now. “I’m a first-time candidate,” he told me, more than once. His lesson? Treat complex and nuanced issues like they deserve to be treated, he said.

And also: “Be very careful about inflammatory social media. It will haunt you forever.”

Peter St. Onge

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