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CMS board filing ends with 18 candidates and lots of new faces

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Filing for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board closed Friday with 18 candidates running for the six district seats. The field includes four incumbents and 11 people making their first run for school board.

Among this week's twists: An incumbent who said she wouldn't run changed her mind, and two candidates who faced off in 2017 will do so again, with some added tension.

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All races are contested. Political affiliation is not listed on the ballot, and voters will participate only in their own district race. District boundaries have changed this year; voters can look up their registration and check their district here.

Here’s who’s in the race:

District 1

Incumbent Rhonda Cheek will face four challengers to represent the north suburban District 1.

Cheek, a nurse who has held the seat since 2009, announced in May that she wouldn’t run for a fourth term. But when she filed Thursday she said the health problems that led to that decision are resolved after surgery. She lives in Davidson and has three children who graduated from CMS schools. Cheek is the board’s longest-serving member, and is one of two Republicans on the current board.

Melissa Easley is a CMS parent, a former CMS teacher, a member of the North Carolina Association of Educators and co-founder of North Carolina Teachers United. According to her campaign website, she resigned from CMS during the pandemic to protect her family “when teachers were forced back into the classroom.” She lives in Charlotte and is a Democrat.

Hamani Fisher is pastor of Life Center International Ministries, president of City Dive Inc., founder of J4J Entertainment Group and a member of the African American Faith Alliance. He lives in Huntersville and is registered unaffiliated.

Bill Fountain taught in CMS and a Catholic school after retiring from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel and from marketing with Northrop Grumman. During the past year he has spoken frequently at school board meetings to oppose what he calls “woke culture.” He lives in Cornelius and changed his affiliation from Republican to unaffiliated when he filed for office this week.

Ro Lawsin is a retired Air Force major and former president of the Hough High PTSA. According to his campaign website, he’s a first-generation Filipino American who is president of the Filipino-American Community of the Carolinas. He lives in Cornelius and is a registered Republican.

District 2

In District 2, which covers west Charlotte, incumbent Thelma Byers-Bailey faces two challengers.

Byers-Bailey has been elected twice before and is vice chair of the board. She’s a West Charlotte High graduate, a retired lawyer and president of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Association.

Juanrique Hall is making his first run for office. He’s a CMS parent, volunteer and coach who graduated from West Charlotte High. He works for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Alternatives to Violence program.

Monty Witherspoon, pastor of Steele Creek AME Zion Church, is making his second run for school board. He sought an at-large seat in 2019, coming in fifth out of 13 candidates. Witherspoon is an Olympic High graduate and a member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus.

All three candidates are registered Democrats.

District 3

Two first-time candidates are seeking the northeast Charlotte District 3 seat that Ruby Jones has held since 2015.

Gregory “Dee” Rankin is a former CMS educator who founded Future LEADERS, a nonprofit mentoring program that teaches youth life skills. According to his campaign website, he is a member of the CMS Equity Committee who has also chaired the education committee of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus and the Mayor’s Mentoring Alliance.

Steven Rushing is a CMS parent who works as a private counselor and runs a transportation business. He's the bilingual son of a Panamanian mother and a father who was in the U.S. Army, making him the only Latino candidate in the race.

Both are registered Democrats.

District 4

The race for District 4, which includes east Charlotte and Mint Hill, will feature a rematch between Carol Sawyer and Stephanie Sneed, with political newcomer Clara Kennedy Witherspoon in the mix.

Sawyer was elected in 2017 and chairs the board’s policy committee. She has a daughter who graduated from CMS and is co-founder of OneMeck and MecklenburgACTS advocacy groups.

Sneed is a lawyer and the president of the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. She lost to Sawyer in 2017 and ran at large in 2019, missing winning a seat by 195 votes. When the school board redrew voting district boundaries earlier this year, the approved version, which was drawn by Sawyer, moved Sneed’s precinct out of District 4. After public outcry, the board reversed its vote and returned that precinct to the district.

Witherspoon recently retired from CMS, where she worked as a school counselor and a multi-tier system of support specialist. She also ran God’s Production Ministries to work with at-risk children.

All three are registered Democrats.

District 5

Former school board member Trent Merchant and first-time candidate Lisa Cline are seeking the District 5 seat Margaret Marshall has held since 2017. The district includes southeast Charlotte and Matthews.

Merchant was an at-large board member from 2006-2011. On his website, he notes that was a stretch that included CMS winning the Broad Prize for excellence in urban education. Merchant is a CMS parent and executive search consultant. He is unaffiliated.

Cline is a retired CMS teacher and administrator. Her website says she taught learning pods during the pandemic, “which allowed me to see the problems of online learning which have led to catastrophic learning loss.” She’s a registered Republican.

District 6

Incumbent Sean Strain faces a challenge from first-time candidates Summer Nunn and Michael Watson to represent the southern District 6.

Strain, a CMS parent who works as a business and systems consultant, was elected in 2017, when the district included all three south suburban towns. The new district includes southwest Charlotte and Pineville. One of two Republicans on the current board, Strain describes himself as “a critical, often lone, dissenting voice” on matters such as bringing students back to in-person classes during the pandemic.

Nunn’s website says she’s a marketing executive and CMS parent who has dealt with the system for children with disabilities. She is the daughter and granddaughter of educators and is a registered Democrat.

Watson is a CMS parent who works in IT and marketing. He’s held volunteer leadership positions at Robinson Middle School and Polo Ridge Elementary. He’s a registered Democrat.

Contact information submitted by all candidates is available here.

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Updated: August 29, 2022 at 2:36 PM EDT
Updated Aug. 29 to add information from Steven Rushing.
Corrected: August 13, 2022 at 8:59 PM EDT
Updated to reflect that Melissa Easley changed her registration from unaffiliated to Democrat.
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.