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In CMS District 1 school board race, a longtime incumbent faces four challengers

From top left: Rhonda Cheek, Melissa Easley. From bottom left: Hamani Fisher, Bill Fountain and Rogelio "Ro" Lawsin.
Candidates' campaign websites.
From top left: Rhonda Cheek, Melissa Easley. From bottom left: Hamani Fisher, Bill Fountain and Rogelio "Ro" Lawsin.

When Rhonda Lennon Cheek was first elected to represent District 1 on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board in 2009, she was a parent activist with three children enrolled in CMS. Thirteen years later they’ve all graduated. And Cheek, who’s a nurse by profession, announced in May that she would not seek a fourth term.

But she changed her mind shortly before filing closed in August, and she now faces four challengers in the Nov. 8 election: Melissa Easley, Hamani Fisher, Bill Fountain and Rogelio "Ro" Lawsin. Early voting in Mecklenburg County begins Thursday.

"I had some health concerns that were resolved," Cheek recently explained at a forum hosted by the African American Caucus of the Mecklenburg Democratic Party. "And I really felt that the question was still burning inside of me: How can we make things better for kids?"

Six of the board's nine seats are on the ballot this year, with the three at-large seats up next year. Four incumbents are seeking to return after a stretch that included controversial decisions about pandemic safety, the rapid-fire hiring and dismissal of a superintendent, a surge in guns at school and persistently low test scores for Black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students.

Cheek: Defending a long record

Cheek is the board's longest-serving member. She has won three four-year terms — including the current one that was extended a year when Census data delayed redrawing the voting districts.

Rhonda Cheek
Campaign website
Rhonda Cheek

She acknowledges concerns about academic performance, racial disparities and school safety, but says her experience positions her to handle the complex issues ahead: Hiring a superintendent, preparing for a bond referendum and doing a student assignment review.

"It takes somebody that understands the inner workings — how budgets work, how the capital programs work," she said. "I’ve built teams, I’ve built coalitions. I have made those five votes happen that have benefited our kids."

School board races are nonpartisan, which means party affiliation doesn't appear on the ballot. But Cheek is one of two Republicans on the board, and she says she has learned to work well with colleagues she may not agree with. And she has chaired the board's committee that deals with other government bodies, including the GOP-dominated General Assembly.

As an example of being able to build support among fellow board members, she says she successfully pushed to bring back sports in January 2021, despite concerns about COVID-19 exposure.

At an African American Caucus online forum, Cheek said the pandemic worsened racial disparities in academic performance. When CMS brought back in-person classes with the option of staying remote, she said, "we had much higher remote learning (among Black and Hispanic students) than we did in a lot of the suburban schools." She noted that CMS is currently working to combat chronic absenteeism and focusing its core instruction to help students recover lost ground.

Lawsin: Newcomer gets GOP nod

Cheek is one of two Republicans on the nine-member board. Before Cheek announced she would run again, another Republican entered the race: First-time candidate Lawsin. He’s a retired Air Force major, a CMS parent and former president of the Hough High PTSA.

Rogelio "Ro" Lawsin
Campaign website
Rogelio "Ro" Lawsin

Lawsin told the local NAACP he’s running on three big themes: Safety, accountability and improving student outcomes.

Lawsin said installing body scanners at middle and high schools is a good first step toward improving safety, but more is needed. His website suggests additional programs, including gang prevention and more mental health support.

On academic performance, "with 84% of Black students and Hispanic students not reading at a proficient level at third grade, we have to do better." The latest test scores actually show that 31.5% of CMS Black third-graders and 26.2% of Hispanic ones are considered proficient in reading. But 86.5% fell short of the higher "college and career ready" mark that the board is using as its goal.

Lawsin says part of the reason students are struggling now is because of the district’s slow return to in-person classes during the pandemic.

"They fell behind because they were locked out. They had to be forced, especially in Mecklenburg County, to learn in front of a computer screen," he said.

The Mecklenburg Republican Party endorsed Lawsin. The party said the vote was “overwhelming,” but declined to give reasons or make anyone available for an interview. Lawsin has also been endorsed by the conservative North Carolina Values Coalition and the North Carolina Asian American Coalition.

Easley: A voice for educators

District 1, which includes Huntersville, Davidson and Cornelius, is politically diverse: 39% of registered voters are unaffiliated, 35% are Democrats and 25% are Republicans.

Campaign website
Melissa Easley

Easley is one of two Democrats in the race. Shortly before filing to run for the board she switched her registration from unaffiliated.

Easley is a first-time candidate but says she's not new to educational policy and politics.

"I am a 14-year veteran teacher. Ten of those years were directly in CMS, in Title I schools," she said. "And I have been an educational advocate for the last six or seven years, not only in Mecklenburg but across the state as well."

She’s a CMS parent who co-founded North Carolina Teachers United, an advocacy network that lobbies for better working conditions and compensation. Its Facebook page has more than 45,000 members. Easley retired from teaching last year to work in education technology. She told the African American Caucus she still understands the stresses on teachers.

"I want to be that voice for educators that I feel like has been lacking in a lot of the boards," she said. "And bringing in educators who are the front lines, who are our experts, who are the ones who are actually doing the work, in order to be that change."

Easley says she's also focused on improving outcomes for students and getting more resources into low-performing schools. She says a board that builds respect for teachers will lay the foundation for change.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators endorsed Easley and Cheek in the District 1 race. Easley was also endorsed by the Democratic Party’s African American Caucus and EqualityNC, an LGBTQ rights group.

Fisher: Trust must be rebuilt

Fisher, a pastor and CMS parent, is also a Democrat making his first run for office. He has the endorsement of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus and Success4CMS, a group founded this summer to promote school board candidates. Spokesman Larry Shaheen, a Republican political consultant, says it's a nonpartisan group.

Hamani Fisher,
Campaign website
Hamani Fisher

Fisher is a member of the African American Faith Alliance, which has been critical of the school board for its inability to end racial disparities in academic performance.

Fisher told the African American Caucus that he’s lived in Huntersville for 16 years, "but I’ve pastored in the west Charlotte area. And what was alarming to me was the difference in equity of the education in the same system." 

Fisher's platform centers on restoring confidence in CMS, raising academic standards and performance, and increasing physical and emotional safety in schools. He says he has worked with juvenile offenders and served as a youth pastor, which helps him understand the needs of students.

"I want to be able to build a bridge of trust between the community as well as the school board," Fisher told the Black Political Caucus. "I believe that trust has been lacking and trust has been lost for the school board and our educational system."

Fountain: Fighting woke culture

Fountain is a first-time candidate and unaffiliated voter who recently left the Republican Party. He’s a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who has taught in CMS and at a Catholic school.

Bill Fountain
Campaign website
Bill Fountain

His platform is distinctive. As he told the Black Political Caucus, "I am the only candidate challenging 'wokeism' in our schools."

"The woke culture is rotting our student morals and robbing them of hope, and it’s no wonder we have low- performing and unsafe schools," he said.

Fountain defines that culture as "rejecting the traditional morality by promoting sexual deviant lifestyles, such as homosexuality and transgender." He said it also entails defining Black and brown students as victims and "and telling them that they’re entitled, which is robbing them of their will to improve themselves." 

When Fountain made similar comments about 'wokeism' at a forum sponsored by the Mecklenburg Democratic Party’s African American Caucus, moderator Dedrick Russell followed up with a question about how he could expect to connect with Black and brown families in his district. Fountain said his approach is beneficial to students of color.

"That child, they want, they should be given encouragement. Self-reliance. Virtue," he said.

For the past year Fountain has been a regular at the school board’s public comment sessions to talk about those issues — part of a national movement that’s playing out in school boards across the country.

Fountain says the solution to the district's problems is to replace "the eight women" on the board — that is, all the current members except Republican Sean Strain, who is seeking re-election in District 6.

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.

To help voters make informed choices, WFAE asked candidates for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board a series of questions. Here are their replies.

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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.