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The CMS District 4 school board race features a hard-fought rematch, plus a newcomer

Carol Sawyer, Stephanie Sneed and Clara Kennedy Witherspoon.
Candidates' campaign websites
Carol Sawyer, Stephanie Sneed and Clara Kennedy Witherspoon.

The race for the District 4 seat on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board features a rematch between two people who vied for the job in 2017, with a political newcomer joining the mix.

When Carol Sawyer and Stephanie Sneed ran for school board in a three-person race five years ago, Sawyer emerged the winner with 47% of the vote. Sneed was second with 31%.

This year the district has been redrawn: It still encompasses east Charlotte but now includes the town of Mint Hill. There’s a new third candidate in the race: Clara Kennedy Witherspoon, a recent retiree from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Sneed tried again in 2019, falling just short of winning an at-large school board seat. She then became chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus, a post she resigned to run for the board a third time. Now, when you hear Sneed talk you’re sure to hear some variation on this line delivered at a caucus forum:

"We are in a state of emergency in Charlotte," she said. "And that starts with CMS, and it’s the unacceptable performance outcomes for CMS students. Many of them look like me and you."

Sawyer finds herself defending a rocky five years that included academic setbacks, controversial decisions about pandemic safety and the forced resignation of one superintendent, followed by the hiring and firing of another. She stirred controversy by submitting a plan for new voting districts that moved Sneed out of District 4. The board approved that plan, but revised it to restore Sneed’s precinct after getting criticism.

Sawyer says her work as chair of the board’s Policy Committee and her connections to the community make her the best person to address those challenges.

"I’ve been a strong voice in District 4 on the board," she told the Mecklenburg Democratic Party’s African American Caucus. "I’ve reached out to the very diverse communities in D4, building relationships with the Latinx, Bosnian, Ethiopian, Nepali and other immigrant and refugee communities."

Witherspoon retired from CMS in January, after working as a counselor and a specialist in multi-tiered systems of support, which means looking at data to address student needs. She told the African American Caucus that experience is vital moving forward.

"You need someone who knows what it looks like inside a school building," she said. "You need someone who understands intervention, social and emotional needs of children and how to address the whole child. "

Focus of frustration

The District 4 race has emerged as a focal point for discontent with the state of CMS. Last week a recently formed group called Success4CMS, which endorses Sneed, put up a billboard on Independence Boulevard saying “Carol Sawyer Voted For Empty Classrooms.” That’s a reference to pandemic closing decisions made by the majority of the board. The president of the local Moms For Liberty chapter has repeatedly taken to social media urging people to vote for Sneed and get rid of Sawyer.

Billboard on Independence Boulevard paid for by Success4CMS, a group that won't reveal its donors or founders.
Nick de la Canal
Billboard on Independence Boulevard paid for by Success4CMS, a group that won't reveal its donors or founders.

Sawyer says all of that has little to do with what District 4 voters think.

"I think the attacks on me are orchestrated by the far right," she said Friday. "I take it as a compliment to my effectiveness on the school board."

All three candidates are Democrats, and Sneed said Friday she didn’t know anything about Success4CMS, including that they’d posted an endorsement of her and four other board candidates.

"I find out these things from the media, like from you guys," she said, laughing. 

Sneed says she has accepted endorsements from the Black Political Caucus, the local Democrats’ African American Caucus and EqualityNC, an LGBTQ rights group that also endorses Sawyer. Beyond that, Sneed says, "I’m not associated with or collaborating with any candidates or organizations."

She says that includes the conservative Moms For Liberty. Sneed did not respond to the group’s call for endorsement information, and the group never formally endorsed Sneed despite the president’s tweets.

Sawyer: Equity and governance

Sawyer is a former CMS parent who has been advocating for equity in education for two decades, co-founding a group called OneMECK and serving on the CMS Equity Committee in the early 2000s. That committee was disbanded, and as a board member Sawyer helped launch a new version that continues to advise district leaders. She has the endorsement of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators and EqualityNC.

There’s no doubt that academic outcomes remain bleak for many CMS students, especially Black, Hispanic and low-income students. But Sawyer notes that she has worked with the rest of the board to launch a new approach to governance, with tightly focused academic goals that are monitored and discussed at most board meetings.

"It is transformative," she said. "It changes the way the board does its business, to provide clear leadership to the superintendent, so that the superintendent can lead and meet the goals that the board sets around student outcomes."

Sneed: Urgency demands change

But so far progress has been elusive, with scores declining during the disrupted education of the pandemic. Sneed says that points to a need for change, especially for struggling students in District 4. That starts with better community connections, she told the Black Political Caucus.

The current board is "only listening to certain voices, certain voices of socioeconomic status, voices that make us feel comfortable, voices that people tend to just agree with us," she said.

Sneed is a CMS parent and a lawyer who has worked with employment law, expertise she says will be valuable during a superintendent search. She also spent two years on the board of Bradford Prep, a Charlotte charter school. Sneed says she was recruited to help the school increase diversity. She says the school uses a reading program promoted by Read Charlotte, which is helping young students of color make gains.

"That Read Charlotte program has done wonders for students," she said.

Witherspoon: School experience needed

Witherspoon, a Charlotte native and a graduate of CMS, says her work experience positions her to help CMS translate data into specific strategies for students and schools.

"I supported schools in looking at their school data to identify what needed to be changed," she said. "If schools really use that data the way it should be, we can turn our low-performing schools around."

Witherspoon says she also wants to work with student assignment plans to increase diversity and attract students back to CMS.

"We’re talking about families of color who are saying, ‘No, I’m not sending my kids to a CMS school because it’s a low-performing school,' " she said.

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.