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In CMS District 6 race, the incumbent joins two challengers in bashing the school board

Sean Strain, Summer Nunn and Michael Watson.
Candidates' campaign websites.
Sean Strain, Summer Nunn and Michael Watson.

When you hear a school board candidate talk about a colossal failure of leadership, you might assume it’s coming from a challenger who wants to replace the incumbent.

In this case it's District 6 school board representative Sean Strain, who’s running for a second term on the platform that he’s been right while most of his colleagues have been wrong.

"I have very consistently maintained a focus on our mission of educating and preparing kids, and I have unfortunately not been able to convince the majority of the board to be focused on that area," he said at a candidate forum sponsored by the Mecklenburg Democratic Party’s African American Caucus.

Challengers Summer Nunn and Michael Watson, both making their first run for office, also raised concerns about leadership at that forum.

"We are very frustrated with where CMS is, not only for our kids but all the kids in the county. We have a leadership problem. It starts with the board," said Nunn, who says her experience as a marketing executive who has young children in CMS makes her the best choice.

Watson, who has high school students in CMS and works in IT, was asked to grade the district's performance for Black and brown students. He gave CMS an F. "I think we’ve failed. We’ve simply failed," he said.

All three candidates say their combination of business expertise and experience as parents positions them to step up at a critical time for the board, as it begins a search for a permanent superintendent.

Strain: At odds with the majority

Strain, who has four children in CMS, was elected in 2017 to represent a south suburban district that included Pineville, Matthews and Mint Hill. It had consistently sent Republicans to a majority-Democratic school board.

Sean Strain
Sean Strain

As one of two Republicans on the current board, Strain has frequently been on the losing end of votes. He tried to bring students back to in-person classes sooner than the board’s majority agreed to. Since then, state and national research has shown more time in remote learning corresponds with bigger learning loss.

And while Strain joined a unanimous vote to hire Earnest Winston as superintendent in 2019, two years later he cast the only vote against a new contract that gave Winston a raise and added job security. When the board voted to fire Winston in April, that revised contract meant CMS had to keep paying Winston’s salary for two years, almost $577,000.

"We didn’t hold people to account," Strain said. "We didn’t require kids to be in school. And I’m not talking about COVID. We didn’t even require kids to come to school, or to show up for class."

He’s talking about Winston’s decision not to pursue truancy charges against parents whose children piled up large numbers of absences. Strain demanded more information and told Winston he could not opt out of following the state’s truancy law. This year CMS leaders all say chronic absenteeism is one of the biggest barriers to academic recovery.

In November Strain was on the losing end of another vote, this one on redrawing school board voting districts based on 2020 Census data. Strain proposed a map that would have kept all three south suburban towns in District 6, but a map drawn by Democrat Carol Sawyer got five votes.

That means Strain is now running in a district that includes Pineville and parts of south and southwest Charlotte, while Matthews and Mint Hill moved to other districts. Registered voters in the new district are 39% unaffiliated, 34% Democrat and 26% Republican.

Strain is endorsed by the local Republican Party and Mecklenburg’s Moms For Liberty chapter and the North Carolina Values Coalition, both conservative groups. He also has the endorsement of a group called Success4CMS, which describes itself as nonpartisan but is not disclosing founders or donors.

Watson: Data-driven analysis

Watson and Nunn are both Democrats.

Michael Watson
Michael Watson

Watson has served as a volunteer in PTAs and school leadership teams for several years. He says his expertise with data will help CMS break out of its pattern of failure for some students.

"I am a huge believer in data-driven analysis," he said. "I believe we need a fresh perspective on looking at the data and understanding real solutions. I know the data is available but I don’t know that we’re looking at it in the right way to find real root-cause analysis."

District 6 includes some of the highest-performing schools in CMS, but it includes some low performers as well. Watson, who is Black, says students of color sometimes need extra support.

"There are some students who aren’t prepared for the rigor of work at our school systems here, that are particularly minority students," he said. "What I think needs to happen is some sort of bridge program to prepare them for the level of education that they may receive at these schools."

Watson is endorsed by the Black Political Caucus and the Mecklenburg Democrats’ African American Caucus.

Nunn: Elementary parents needed

Many of the current board members have children who have aged out of CMS, or at least moved past elementary school. Nunn says it’s important to have someone present who understands the struggles of those schools.

Summer Nunn
Summer Nunn

"I think it’s imperative that we have elementary parents with that perspective on our board," she said. "And I’m in this for the long haul. I’ve got one in kindergarten so my youngest is just starting out."

Nunn is chief marketing officer for a chain of car washes. She says her business contacts and skills would help the board hire the right superintendent and rebuild community confidence.

"I would be the highest level of business expertise we have on that board," she said. "And it’s time that not only the community steps in and helps our schools, but the corporations who are so successful based on the workers in this community also start to invest in education as well. I am ready to hold them to that."

Nunn has been endorsed by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators and EqualityNC, an LGBTQ rights group.

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.

Corrected: October 19, 2022 at 11:12 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story listed the incorrect Black Political Caucus endorsement.
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.