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Will partisan school board elections keep growing in NC?

Cabarrus County voters chose a Republican incumbent, Laura Blackwell Lindsey (right), and two Democratic newcomers, Sam Treadaway (left) and Pamela Escobar (center), in the 2022 nonpartisan election.
Cabarrus County Schools Board of Education website
Cabarrus County voters chose a Republican incumbent, Laura Blackwell Lindsey (right), and two Democratic newcomers, Sam Treadaway (left) and Pamela Escobar (center), in the 2022 nonpartisan election.

This article originally appeared in Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest schools news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

I learned something from my colleague Steve Harrison last week: Partisan school board elections are more common in North Carolina thanpartisan city council races. Based on my experience in Mecklenburg County I had assumed the opposite was true.

But it turns out Charlotte is one of only five cities in North Carolina that holds primaries and lists candidates by their political affiliation. That’s out of more than 500 cities and towns.

Meanwhile, 42 of 115 North Carolina school boards hold partisan races, a number that’s been growing. Lincoln and Craven counties’ school boards joined the partisan pack in 2022 and Burke County will do so next year, according to the North Carolina School Boards Association. So far in this year’s legislative session, a handful of bills have been introduced to convert more districts to partisan voting, including the three in Catawba County. And Rep. Kevin Crutchfield, a Cabarrus County Republican, told the Independent Tribune last week he’s considering a similar bill for Cabarrus County Schools.

Last year’s Cabarrus County school board race provided an interesting example of the nonpartisan approach. The county’s registered voters are 36.8% unaffiliated, 33.7% Republican and 28.7% Democrat. Donald Trump won 54% of the vote in 2020.

In the 2022 school board race, with the board chair opting not to run again, 11 candidates ran for the three open seats. Voters reelected Republican Vice Chair Laura Blackwell Lindsey and chose two new Democrats, Sam Treadaway and Pamela Escobar. Longtime incumbent Carolyn Carpenter, a Republican, was defeated.

Supporters of nonpartisan elections might say that’s exactly how the system is supposed to work: Voters chose board members based on qualifications, positions and reputations, rather than a letter next to the name. Treadaway is a retired educator, while Escobar is a Cabarrus schools parent who works as a public information officer for Mecklenburg County.

But Crutchfield told the Independent Tribune he thinks partisan labels would help voters choose school board members who “reflect the values of the community.”

Back in Mecklenburg County, which leans heavily Democratic, Democrats dominate the nonpartisan school board almost as much as they do the partisan local boards. There are currently eight Democrats and one Republican on the school board. I’ve heard no talk of seeking partisan school board races in Mecklenburg, and it’s unlikely a Republican-dominated General Assembly would approve such a move.

A whirlwind of CMS superintendent search sessions

The search firm helping the CMS board find a new superintendent conducted 28 focus groups on the topic over two days last week. Board member Summer Nunn, who chairs the board’s search committee, says early tallies indicate more than 200 community members, employees and students weighed in on what they want to see in the district’s next leader.

But wait … didn’t CMS already do this? Yes and no.

When the board fired Earnest Winston in April, it faced a dilemma. Members at the time wanted to get a search started to ensure having a permanent superintendent by this summer, but a school board election was coming in November. The Charlotte Executive Leadership Council, which is supporting CMS in a number of ways, paid for Civility Localized to conduct a public opinion study before the election (Read the full report here).

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Civility Localized is a Charlotte-based Black-owned firm, but the input it collected was skewed toward white and affluent residents. It wasn’t that the consultants didn’t try to get a more diverse sampling. It’s just that the people who respond to calls for public engagement tend to be those who are most engaged with the system already — generally some combination of white, professional, college-educated, tech-savvy and empowered.

After the election brought in five new board members, the new board got serious about launching the search — and decided to try harder to hear Black, Latino and Asian voices, residents of Charlotte’s “crescent” neighborhoods and CMS employees and students. The additional round of public engagement was built into the contract with BWP & Associates search firm.

Two consultants swooped in to do last week’s in-person sessions, while another two or three ran the Zoom forums. They lined up sessions with groups such as the Eastside and Westside forums, the NAACP, an Asian/Hindu community group and a Spanish-language forum in east Charlotte. Participants were invited, but all sessions were open to the public.

Last week’s input will be combined with the Civility Localized data to prepare a leadership profile that will be presented to applicants and used to guide the board’s decision, which is expected in May.

For teachers, a touch of glamor and a reminder of reality

If you watched last night’s long Academy Awards ceremony you may have heard a shout-out to teachers. Daniel Scheinert, who collected Oscars as co-writer and director of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” rattled off the names of several teachers, saying, “You guys educated me, you inspired me and you taught me to be less of a butthead.” I bet I wasn’t the only person grinning at that pithy description of a teacher’s work.

Meanwhile, back in Charlotte the CMS board’s intergovernmental relations committee has scheduled a meeting with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators to talk about the controversial Pathways to Excellence proposal for changing the way North Carolina’s teachers are licensed and paid. The committee heard from one of the creators of the plan last month. The North Carolina Association of Educators opposes the plan. The meeting is at 3:45 p.m. Wednesday at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.

Stay up to speed on CMS bond plans

The CMS board and Mecklenburg County commissioners had some interesting discussions about construction and bond plans recently, and last week I did short takes on the inflation calculations, why the proposed bond plan is so heavy on middle schools, the safety features being incorporated into campus design and the district’s costly approach to building athletic facilities.

Whatever ends up on the November ballot is going to have a big impact on property tax rates, neighborhood development and student learning conditions. We’ve created a pagefor all bond coverage (it will eventually include more about borrowing for Central Piedmont Community College and other county facilities as well).

You might want to bookmark it; if you’re getting this newsletter you're probably one of the people who help keep friends and neighbors informed about education.

The Mecklenburg County Commission has approved a $2.5 billion bond package for CMS that will go before voters. The board says the money is needed to add classrooms, replace outdated schools, improve learning conditions and keep students safer in violent times.

Edugeek resource roundup

A few new things worth checking out if you’re interested in education:

  • BEST NC, a coalition of business leaders interested in public education, has come out with a report on teacher pay. It’s part of the ongoing discussion over whether and how to restructure the pay system to attract and keep top educators. Read the executive summary or the full report.
  • The Public School Forum of North Carolina, a Raleigh-based coalition of government, business and education leaders, has posted its 2023 county-by-county report on funding for public schools. Read it here.
  • The archives department at Central Piedmont Community College has created an exhibit on “Parallel Lives – Central High School and Second Ward High School,” detailing the history of segregated high schools in uptown Charlotte. Check out the online version here or visit the archives section of the Hagemeyer Library, located in the Parr Center on Central Campus (map here). It’s open through May 8.

All of these are on my to-do list — if you check them out let me know what you think.


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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.