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Were there kingmakers — or queenmakers — in the CMS board race?

Education news

Going into last week’s election, I figured Thelma Byers-Bailey was toast.

A smiling woman
Candidate Facebook Page
Thelma Byers-Bailey

Monty Witherspoon, who was challenging her to represent west Charlotte on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, had the endorsement of the Black Political Caucus, the Democratic Party’s African American Caucus, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators and The Observer.

But Byers-Bailey won a third term without any of that backing — the only school board incumbent who wasn’t defeated.

The aftermath of any election brings celebration and gloating from groups that backed winners. But this one, unusual in so many ways, left me wondering whether any of the traditional groups can claim the role of kingmaker (or perhaps, given the preponderance of female victors, queenmaker).

I looked at endorsements by the groups listed above, plus Equality NC, the North Carolina Values Coalition, Moms For Liberty and Success4CMS. No one did better than 50% in the seriously contested races. The African American Caucus had three winners out of five endorsements, but that includes Gregory “Dee” Rankin. A high-profile education activist in a race with no incumbent and a little-known opponent, Rankin had the closest thing to an unopposed race this year. He won the northeast Charlotte District 3 seat with 76% of the vote.

Rankin, Witherspoon and Trent Merchant, a former CMS board member and unaffiliated voter, were the most-endorsed candidates. Merchant fell short in the race to represent south Charlotte, with retired educator and Republican Lisa Cline taking the District 5 seat.

Rankin and Stephanie Sneed, the winner of a hard-fought race to represent east Charlotte and Mint Hill in District 4, have both played prominent roles in the Black Political Caucus. But that group’s endorsement wasn’t enough to push four other candidates to victory.

Witherspoon and Hamani Fisher, a candidate in the northern District 1, are both ministers associated with the African American Faith Alliance, which has garnered attention and controversy in its efforts to promote better education for students of color. That included a heated meeting with interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh and a press conference on district leadership that included Moms For Liberty representatives. Both ministers lost, with Fisher coming in fifth of five candidates.

Negative tactics, campaign spending and hot issues

A new group called Success4CMS, which isn’t disclosing its donors, broke new ground by taking out billboards to campaign against District 4 incumbent Carol Sawyer. They noted that she “voted for empty classrooms,” a reference to the board’s decision to keep students in remote instruction because of COVID-19. Sawyer lost to Sneed, who was the group’s preferred candidate. But that group, too, backed more losers than winners.

Pandemic safety measures and “culture wars” issues generated a lot of controversy, here and across the country. Sawyer was the target of negative campaigning on those fronts, and her defeat could be viewed as a sign that the parental rights bloc has clout.

But District 6 incumbent Sean Strain and District 1 incumbent Rhonda Cheek, both Republicans, pushed to get kids back to classes sooner and they both lost. Strain had the endorsement of the Values Coalition and the local Moms For Liberty chapter, but he was also running in a district that had redrawn boundaries based on 2020 Census data, making it tougher for a Republican.

And Bill Fountain, who campaigned in the northern District 1 on a platform of opposing “woke culture,” came in fourth of five candidates.

Campaign spending didn’t appear to play much of a role either. According to campaign finance reports, Merchant, Strain and District 1 candidate Rogelio “Ro” Lawsin were the biggest spenders in this race, each topping $20,000. None of them won. In fact, Lawsin lost to Melissa Easley, an educator-activist who raised less than $1,000.

So what did matter?

Easley told me she was shocked to win. Everyone knew this race would be unpredictable, with the CMS board sharing a ballot with state and national races. That meant a lot more voters weighed in. And redrawn boundaries changed the composition of voting districts.

Easley thought she was in training for an at-large run next year. She says she thinks voters were looking for moms whose kids will be in CMS for years to come. She, Sneed and District 6 winner Summer Nunn all have young children enrolled in district schools, while the children of many current board members have graduated or are getting close to that point.

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Educators also did well: Cline, Easley and Rankin have all taught in public schools (current CMS employees can’t hold a school board seat). And while party labels didn’t appear on the ballot, it helped to be a Democrat in a blue county.

But what to make of District 2, where all the candidates were Democrats and Byers-Bailey is a lawyer whose children are well past school age? She laughed when I raised the matter of her opponent’s endorsements. She told me she had the support of Bishop George Battle Jr. and his son, former CMS attorney George Battle III, civil rights lawyer James Ferguson, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt and school desegregation icon Dorothy Counts-Scoggins. That’s what matters in west Charlotte, she said.

“There are those who think they have power,” she said, “and those who have it.”

Moving forward

Byers-Bailey says there’s another group that has real power, though it may just be sinking in for them: the five new board members. They didn’t run as a slate and many don’t know each other well. But, as Byers-Bailey notes, if they can come together they’ve got the votes to steer the change voters seem to want.

So far I’m seeing good signs. Several candidates who lost their races swallowed their hurt feelings and immediately pledged support to the winners. Four of the newly elected members attended a marathon school board meeting less than 24 hours after winning their seats (the fifth was on a business trip). Easley says they’re already networking and will sit down with the current board and Hattabaugh this week.

They all knew they would jump into monumental tasks, including a superintendent search, a bond campaign, a student assignment review and the overwhelming challenge of educational equity. They quickly discovered they’ll also have to find a replacement for Hattabaugh while they figure out their search.

I wish them all well. This work matters to everyone in the community.

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.