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Retired educator and former board member vie for the CMS school board's District 5 seat

Lisa Cline and Trent Merchant
Lisa Cline and Trent Merchant

Two candidates are running to fill the District 5 seat on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, with incumbent Margaret Marshall stepping down.

Lisa Cline and Trent Merchant both say their experience positions them to jump right into all the tasks awaiting new board members, such as improving academic outcomes and finding a new superintendent.

Merchant is a former at-large school board member.

"When I was on the board from 2006 to 2011 it was characterized by stability, strong leadership and phenomenal gains in student achievement and closing achievement gaps, despite having to navigate the Great Recession and make massive budget cuts," he said at a forum sponsored by the African American Caucus of the Mecklenburg Democrats.

He notes that in 2011 CMS won the Broad Prize, a national award for excellence in urban education. But CMS never got close to eliminating racial gaps on academic skills. For instance, on national exams given in 2011, 16% of African American eighth-graders in CMS were rated proficient in math, compared with 66% of white classmates.

Merchant is also a CMS parent and taught briefly in Atlanta. But it’s his current career that he says is essential now.

"I want to lead the search committee for the new superintendent, because I’ve managed outside search counsel before as the head of talent at a $5 billion company," he said. "I am an executive search consultant, so I know what good looks like."

Cline is a former CMS parent who volunteered in schools, and she’s making her first run for office.

"I have 39-plus years of educational experience; 29-plus of those were spent in CMS," she said. "I was a teacher, a curriculum developer and an administrator."

Cline says the board desperately needs new leadership, and experienced educators are needed for that.

"We need to clean house," she said at the African American Caucus forum. "We have been doing things wrong for a few years. Our teachers have no respect for people who are above them, because we don’t respect the teachers."

Challenges of the district

District 5 encompasses south Charlotte and Matthews. It’s a majority-white district where many residents can afford private schools. In interviews with the local NAACP branch, Cline said the district’s biggest challenge is getting all families re-engaged with public education.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

"In District 5 it’s getting the families back into the schools and feeling that they are receiving the quality of education that every child regardless of the district deserves," she said.

Merchant also cited that priority, and noted that the 2024 opening of a new south Charlotte high school will bring changes for four existing high schools in District 5. South Mecklenburg High is the most likely to suffer if the new boundaries aren't drawn carefully, he said.

"The goal should be to create five great high schools out of those four, so that then we can set that and turn the board’s attention to other districts that have greater problems than we have now in (District) 5," he said.

About 40% of District 5 voters are unaffiliated, with the rest divided almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats.

Merchant is registered unaffiliated. He’s endorsed by Marshall and by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, the Black Political Caucus and EqualityNC, an LGBTQ rights group.

When the NAACP asked about restricting access to books and allowing outside groups to shape how history is taught, Merchant said the culture wars have no place in schools.

"It’s right-wing extremists who are trying to censor information that makes them uncomfortable," he said. "The reality, from my view anyway, is that discussion of systemic racism as a foundation for our country should not make one uncomfortable unless they are a racist."

Cline is a registered Republican who’s endorsed by the local party. In response to the NAACP question about books, she says she doesn’t believe in banning books but does believe "in a common sense approach so that we have the appropriate books at the appropriate level."

She said as a former social studies teacher, her take on history is that "we need to be teaching what history actually happened, regardless of how bad it was. Because if we forget history we are bound to repeat our mistakes."

Cline has also been endorsed by Success4CMS, a local group formed this summer to promote school board candidates. Spokesman Lawrence Shaheen, a Republican political consultant, said the founders want to remain anonymous, but the group is nonpartisan.

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.