How we see the races for school board

The Observer editorial board

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education completed at least two significant tasks in 2017 – hiring a new superintendent and approving a new student assignment plan with an eye on increasing diversity in schools.

That doesn’t mean the board won’t be busy in 2018. It will tackle all the usual policy decisions it makes, and it will continue to confront equity and diversity questions, especially with the addition of new schools that require new assignment zones.

The board also will welcome at least three new members, as current district representatives Tom Tate, Eric Davis and Paul Bailey are not running for reelection. While we applaud their thoughtful service, we also welcome fresh voices that we hope can push the board to be more transparent and forthright than it has been in recent years.

All six district seats are up for grabs in nonpartisan races. Here are our recommendations for each:

District 1

Two-term incumbent Rhonda Lennon faces a challenge from political newcomers Jess Miller and Annette Albright in this north Mecklenburg district. Lennon has struck a good balance between representing her north Meck constituents and working for the good of CMS as a whole, and we recommend her for another term.

Miller, who taught at Sugar Creek Charter and plans to open her own charter school, is a passionate Teach for America alum who would fight vigorously for equity for low-income students. Her understanding of education issues, from the broad to the granular, is impressive.

Albright, a CMS parent, has served in the district as a substitute teacher and behavior modification technician. She is suing CMS over the district’s refusal to let her return to CMS after she was attacked by Harding High students and a video of the incident went viral.

District 2

Incumbent Thelma Byers-Bailey faces a challenge from retired principal Lenora Shipp in this district that covers the western and southwestern part of the county. Both have deep roots in west Charlotte and CMS and both would make capable board members.

Byers-Bailey, a retired lawyer, won the seat four years ago in a bid prompted by the closing of her neighborhood school, Lincoln Heights Elementary. She has been an adequate representative. As the chair of the board’s Facilities Committee, she wants the district to do a better job of planning, designing and opening new schools.

Shipp spent 33 years working at CMS, including as principal at Sedgefield Elementary, Nations Ford Elementary and Lincoln Heights, and says that experience and her time as a teacher gives her the background to be a more effective board member. Shipp also has more familiarity and connections in the southwest half of the district.

One does not stand out as far more qualified than the other, but we give the nod to Shipp and her experience on the ground in low-income schools.

District 3

Voters in this northeast Charlotte district will choose from several capable candidates, including Ruby Jones, who was appointed to the seat in 2015 to replace the departing Joyce Waddell. Five of the six candidates are Democrats in this heavily Democratic district. One, Emmitt Butts, is unaffiliated.

Two candidates stand out. Janeen Bryant, a CMS parent and former Teach for America educator, displays a keen grasp of education issues big and small. She has worked for several education non-profits and as a volunteer, and she would be a smart and passionate advocate for equity.

Levester Flowers, who has been a substitute teacher for CMS since retiring from Bank of America, also shows a thorough grasp of the challenges facing schools in his district and across CMS. He wants the district to take a more thoughtful approach to discipline, and he champions more robust vocational paths for students in his district and others.

Bryant and Flowers both ran unsuccessfully in 2015 for an at-large seat on the board, and each would serve District 3 well. We give a slight nod to Bryant.

District 4

Longtime activist Carol Sawyer, attorney Stephanie Sneed and former CMS employee Queen Thompson are vying to replace board member Tom Tate, who stepped down after 12 years serving this east Charlotte district.

Sneed, who is a CMS parent, says she has the skills and training to translate advocacy into policy on the board. Thompson worked in dropout prevention before leaving and suing CMS for racial discrimination.

We recommend Sawyer, a former CMS parent and ever-present attendee of board meetings. Sawyer possesses a detailed knowledge of not only CMS policy but schools in her district and the distinctive needs they have. That breadth of knowledge would serve District 4 well.

District 5

Three candidates are competing to replace Eric Davis, who is stepping down after eight years representing this south Charlotte district that runs from Dilworth to Olde Providence and from Huntingtowne Farms to Rama Road.

We recommend Margaret Marshall. A retired CPA, Marshall has volunteered in CMS for decades, including as co-president of the PTA at Myers Park High and Alexander Graham Middle. She was also a founding board member of the Myers Park High School Foundation and is on the board of the East Mecklenburg High School Foundation. An unaffiliated voter, Marshall has the intellect, the energy, the heart and the experience to be a highly effective school board member.

Jeremy Stephenson, a lawyer, ran unsuccessfully at-large two years ago as a vocal opponent of busing and advocate of neighborhood schools. He said he is intentionally using a more tempered tone this time around. He says he wants to use data and strategies from high-performing low-income schools to help achieve equity across the district. He would bring a much-needed critical eye when the board struggles with process and transparency.

Jim Peterson, who has run for City Council and the county commission, is also running.

District 6

Voters have a clear choice between candidates and approaches to diversity in this heavily Republican south Mecklenburg district. Two candidates, Allen Smith and Sean Strain, are vying to replace Paul Bailey, who is running to be mayor of Matthews.

Smith, an unaffiliated voter, believes that CMS needs to tackle diversity in schools by offering parents a choice of a cluster of schools in their geographic area. Strain, a Republican, helped organize a parent group that opposed any threats to the neighborhood school structure that most south Mecklenburg parents want to protect.

We appreciate Smith’s thoughtfulness about CMS issues, as well as his desire to find new and innovative ways to bring equity to more schools. He believes most voters in his district would agree if they heard him out. We’re not so sure.

Strain needs to learn more about steps CMS already has taken to close the achievement gap in struggling schools, but he would provide a necessary perspective on the board as it continues to confront issues of diversity and equity.