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The 2022 midterm elections are the first of the Biden era. They're also the first since the 2020 census, which means there are new congressional districts. There are U.S. Senate races in the Carolinas as well, along with many state and local races.

Analysis: Voters want change from the CMS board, but what will that look like?

CMS board voting 0419.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
The April vote to fire Superintendent Earnest Winston was one of many controversies preceding Tuesday's electoral shake-up.

Tuesday was a bad night for incumbents on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, with three losing their races and only one prevailing. When the new board is sworn in on Dec. 13, five of the nine members will be newcomers.

The last time the board saw a shake-up like that was in 2009, when five new members were elected. But that happened because five incumbents opted not to run. This time the voters forced out three district representatives — and rejected the candidate endorsed by a fourth incumbent who didn’t run.

So the people are demanding change — hardly surprising amid lingering racial disparities, pandemic setbacks, churn in the superintendent’s office and “culture wars” strife.

But figuring out what that change will look like is tough. The losers don’t have much in common, and the winners didn’t run as a slate with a common platform. Consider:

  • Sean Strain, a Republican representing the south suburbs, campaigned as a dissident incumbent who challenged the board’s majority. He lost to Democrat Summer Nunn, a CMS parent and first-time candidate, in a redrawn district that split up the south suburban towns.
  • Rhonda Cheek was one of the newcomers elected in 2009 to represent the north suburbs. Now the board’s senior member, she’s a Republican known for working with both parties, which may have led to the local party’s decision to back a GOP challenger. Instead, the voters chose teacher activist Melissa Easley, a Democrat and first-time candidate.
  • Carol Sawyer, a white Democrat representing east Charlotte, drew the wrath of conservatives who criticized her for keeping schools closed during the pandemic and some Black activists who said she didn’t do enough to improve student success. She lost to fellow Democrat Stephanie Sneed, a third-time candidate who resigned as chair of the Black Political Caucus to run.
  • Margaret Marshall, an unaffiliated voter who represents south Charlotte, endorsed former CMS board member Trent Merchant, also unaffiliated. Voters instead chose Republican Lisa Cline, a retired educator making her first run for office.
  • Thelma Byers-Bailey, a Democrat representing west Charlotte, was the only incumbent who won re-election — despite having a Democratic challenger who was endorsed by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, the Democrats’ African American Caucus and the Black Political Caucus.
  • The northeast Charlotte seat was the only one that didn’t pose many questions. Incumbent Ruby Jones didn’t run, and Democrat Gregory “Dee” Rankin, who has a high profile in education activism, soundly defeated a little-known Democratic opponent.

New alliances will form

In the 2009 shake-up, the voters chose two Republicans, two Democrats and an unaffiliated voter, shifting the board’s approach toward the center. This time they chose four Democrats and one Republican, shifting the balance left.

One of the first questions is how the new and returning members will align themselves, regardless of party labels. The first test of that will take place behind the scenes, as they decide who will be elected chair and vice chair in December.

Everyone who ran agreed that the biggest overarching challenge is low academic performance, especially among Black, Hispanic and low-income students. The current board has approved goals and launched a process for keeping tabs on progress. It’s unclear whether or how the new board will change that.

Meanwhile, many students are doing well and their parents are happy with their schools. The challenge is keeping those families happy so they don’t leave CMS if they feel like their kids and schools aren’t getting enough attention. So the new board has to win trust across the spectrum — and do it while tackling student assignment and a bond campaign.

They’ll also face a superintendent search, but again, it’s not clear how the change might shape that. That was acknowledged as a top issue during the campaign, but candidates didn’t stake out positions on how to conduct the search or who to hire.

More voters weighed in

One thing was unique to this year’s CMS board election: There were a lot more voters.

School board races normally happen in odd-numbered years, with turnout around 20%. This race was delayed a year so the district boundaries could be redrawn based on up-to-date census data. That put it on the ballot with national and state races, and turnout was almost 45%. In fact, the number of early votes this year was higher than the number of total votes in either of the last two school board races.

That fluke of timing also means that instead of having two years between election years, the three at-large members will be on the ballot next year. The district representatives elected Tuesday will serve three years instead of the normal four, coming back up for election in 2025.

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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.