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CMS board's vice chair faces two challengers in the District 2 school board race

Thelma Byers-Bailey, Juanrique Hall and Monty Witherspoon
Candidates' campaign websites.
Thelma Byers-Bailey, Juanrique Hall and Monty Witherspoon

In the race for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board’s District 2 seat, the board’s vice chair is seeking a third term while two challengers hope to replace her.

Thelma Byers-Bailey, who is president of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Association, says she was inspired to run for school board in 2013 because the board had voted to close a school in her neighborhood.

"I felt that was not a good decision for our community. And I have been focused on facilities ever since I’ve been on the board," she said at a candidate forum sponsored by the Mecklenburg Democrats' African American Caucus.

She says that includes working to make sure West Charlotte High, her alma mater, and Bruns Avenue Elementary, another aging school in her district, got replacement buildings in the 2017 bond package.

But as she seeks a third term representing the west Charlotte district, two challengers — Juanrique Hall and Monty Witherspoon — are running based on their own dissatisfaction with Bailey and the board.

Hall is a West Charlotte alum and a volunteer football coach there. He works with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Alternatives To Violence program, and he says he knows the young people of the district in a way the others don’t.

"My mission is to solely help the kids in District 2 get to college, get a trade, moreso stay out of the graveyard and the jailhouse," he said.

Witherspoon, a minister who ran for school board in 2019, says the current board hasn’t been able to boost performance for the Black and low-income students who fill many of the District 2 schools.

"What we need is clear, resolute leadership that can provide clear strategic plans on how to move these schools forward," he said.

All three candidates are Democrats, running in a majority-Democratic district.

Byers-Bailey: Leading slow trek to change

The biggest challenge for Byers-Bailey, along with the other four incumbents, is the persistently low test scores and other academic measures for Black, Hispanic and low-income students. Twelve of the 50 low-performing schools in CMS are in District 2.

Thelma Byers-Bailey
Thelma Byers-Bailey

Byers-Bailey worked with Chair Elyse Dashew to hire a consultant who helped the board streamline its goals and focus on academic results. As she told the African American Caucus, "I brought back to our board the idea of changing the way we govern by focusing on what students know and are able to do."

Gearing up for that work took months, and already-low test scores got even worse during the disruptions of the pandemic. Part of the board’s work involves holding the superintendent accountable for results. In April the board voted 7-2 to fire Superintendent Earnest Winston after less than three years on the job. Byers-Bailey was one of the two “no” votes.

With an interim in place through June, the board is now holding community engagement sessions to talk about community values for the district "so that we have very clear goals and guidelines from the constituents as to what they want in a superintendent," Byers-Bailey said.

Witherspoon: New leadership needed

But Witherspoon told the African American Caucus the whole board has to take responsibility for hiring Winston in the first place. He had never run a school or a district, and the board had to get state approval to hire him without the normal qualifications.

Monty Witherspoon
Monty Witherspoon

"You could almost anticipate that it would end in the way that it did," he said. "And I think that’s why we need a new board. It’s going to be so very important that we make the right decision on the next superintendent and that we be accountable for that decision. Because what we do now is going to affect the next 10, 15, 20 years."

Witherspoon is a member of the African American Faith Alliance, which was critical of Winston’s leadership and the board’s failure to act more effectively for children of color. He says it’s time for new leadership that can restore community confidence.

"CMS has a communication gap between the system, parents, students and the community," he said. "We need to close that gap. We need effective leadership who’s able to communicate and build coalitions with the community."

Witherspoon has been endorsed by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, the Democrats’ African American Caucus, the Black Political Caucus and a new group called Success4CMS. Witherspoon said Tuesday that he knows nothing about that group and did not seek its endorsement.

Hall: Troubled past is a plus

Hall, who is making his first run for office, told the African American Caucus he wants to provide more support for students who are struggling in their home life, but set a tough-love tone at schools.

Juanrique Hall
Juanrique Hall

"We need to have zero tolerance when it comes to behavior in the classroom. We need to get behind our teachers and really advocate for them when something is going wrong," he said.

And he’s in favor of bringing truancy charges against parents: "If you hold parents accountable and they’re knowing that their livelihood is going to be affected, trust me, they get their kids to school every day."

The Charlotte Observer reports that Hall has a lengthy criminal record that includes prison time on cocaine possession charges in the 1990s. Hall told WFAE that getting arrested and doing time when he was younger saved him from himself.

"I came back, I got my life right," he said. "I work for the airport. I have a trade that I went to school for. I work on helicopters and airplanes. And then I’m out there in these streets showing these kids that if this is what you do, this is the consequences of it."

Hall says he connects with students who are on the margins, whether that’s because of disabilities, sexual orientation their parents don’t approve of or run-ins with the law.

"Some of them have been locked up as a juvenile and have a house-arrest band on their leg," he said. "So how are you going to speak to a kid that’s got a house-arrest band on his leg and if you’ve never been arrested?"

Watch the candidates

Here are links to archived candidate interviews and forums:

Black Political Caucus forum with candidates in Districts 1, 2 and 3.

Black Political Caucus forum with candidates in Districts 4, 5 and 6.

African American Caucus/Mecklenburg Democrats forum with candidates in Districts 1, 2 and 3.

African American Caucus/Mecklenburg Democrats forum with candidates in Districts 4, 5 and 6.

NAACP interviews with District 1 candidates.

NAACP interviews with District 2 candidates.

NAACP interviews with District 3 candidates.

NAACP interviews with District 4 candidates.

NAACP interviews with District 5 candidates.

NAACP interviews with District 6 candidates.

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.