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Election means leadership change for 3 Charlotte-area school boards

Union County school board chair Melissa Merrell and Superintendent Andrew Houlihan listen to a speaker at the March 1 board meeting.
Ann Doss Helms
Union County school board chair Melissa Merrell and Superintendent Andrew Houlihan listen to a speaker at the March 1 board meeting.

This year's election will bring leadership changes for three Charlotte-area school districts. Board chairs in Union, Iredell and Cabarrus counties are not seeking reelection, with all three entering county commissioner races instead.

Union County school board Chair Melissa Merrell has spent eight years on the board of the second-largest district in the region. She’s among 10 Republicans vying in the May 17 primary for three at-large county commissioner seats.

Melissa Merrell

Merrell has been a high-profile leader during the pandemic years, when Union County moved quickly to minimize COVID-19 restrictions. The district made masks optional starting in August and tried to stop quarantines and contact tracing before the state allowed that. At a time when school boards across the country have seen angry crowds weigh in on pandemic safety and other "culture wars" issues, Merrell has been a focal point for praise and criticism.

Despite that — and despite the fact that Merrell has talked about threats against her and her family — she says that's not the reason for her decision. She says it's just time for her to take on a role that includes funding the school district, and for another parent to have a shot at the board seat.

Union County is among 42 North Carolina districts that hold partisan school board races. Vice Chair Kathy Heintel faces a challenge in the Republican primary from Jessica Cook, a newcomer to Union County politics. All five seats on the ballot will have contested races in the general election, including the District 1 seat that John Kirkpatrick IV, the board's lone Democrat, was appointed to a year ago.

Three new members for ISS board

No incumbents will be on the ballot for three seats on the Iredell-Statesville School board. That district also has partisan school board races, and because no Democrats filed, the Republican primary will decide who claims those spots.

Todd Carver
Iredell-Statesville Schools
Todd Carver

Chairman Todd Carver, a Republican who is finishing his first term on the school board, is running for the Iredell Board of Commissioners. Like Merrell, he says it's a logical next step for him, not a flight from the heated climate surrounding the school board. But he said that could be a factor for others who opted not to run. At a September meeting, protesters who couldn't enter a socially-distanced meeting chamber pounded on a glass door until it shattered.

"I don't want to speak for them, but I would certainly say that some of them are frustrated with the times we're in," he said last week.

Two Republicans will compete for Carver's District 7 seat in the primary, and for the District 1 seat being vacated by appointee Bryan Shoemaker. Three Republicans have filed for the District 3 seat, where incumbent Samuel Kennington isn’t seeking re-election. And two Republicans are vying for the District 1 seat. Bryan Shoemaker, who was appointed in September to fill a vacancy, isn’t running.

In Cabarrus, 11 vie for three seats

Holly Grimsley
Michael Martin
Holly Grimsley

In Cabarrus County’s nonpartisan board race, 11 candidates are running for three open seats. Incumbents Laura Blackwell and Carolyn Carpenter are among them, while board Chair Holly Grimsley is running as a Republican candidate for county commissioner.

Grimsley has served on the Cabarrus board for 12 years. "It's really set the stage for moving to county commissioner," she said. "As you know, the county commissioners control the budget for the school system."

She said all the division that shows up in school board comment sessions carries over to commissioners' meetings. "They get actually all of our public speakers and their additional ones," Grimsley said.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Gaston County schools will open filing for their nonpartisan board races in July.

A version of this report originally appeared in WFAE's weekly education newsletter Monday. Don't miss an issue — subscribe here: https://www.wfae.org/sign-up-for-our-newsletters 

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.