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Learn everything you need to know about voting in the upcoming election, including local candidates' positions on various issues and why they think you should vote for them.

Fourteen candidates, three seats: CMS board race poses a challenge for voters

At-large 2023 CMS board candidates (top left to bottom right) Omar Harris, Peggy Capehart, Liz Monterrey, Tigress McDaniel, Bill Fountain, Monty Witherspoon, Michael Johnson Jr., Brian Kasher, Lenora Shipp, Shamaiye Haynes, Clara Kennedy Witherspoon, Claire Covington, Juanrique Hall and Annette Albright.
Layna Hong
At-large 2023 CMS board candidates (top left to bottom right) Omar Harris, Peggy Capehart, Liz Monterrey, Tigress McDaniel, Bill Fountain, Monty Witherspoon, Michael Johnson Jr., Brian Kasher, Lenora Shipp, Shamaiye Haynes, Clara Kennedy Witherspoon, Claire Covington, Juanrique Hall and Annette Albright.

In just over two weeks, Mecklenburg County voters will choose three at-large school board members from a slate of 14 candidates. That means crucial leadership roles for the next four years will be decided in what’s likely to be a low-turnout election where voters must work hard to figure out who’s suited for the job.

Five newcomers were elected to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board last November, and two of the three incumbents are not running this year. That means that after the Nov. 7 election, at least seven of nine board members will have one year’s experience or less. And they’ll be working with a new superintendent to steer the nation’s 17th- largest school district.

For people who do get-out-the-vote drives, the challenge is making sure voters care enough to show up — less than 5% of eligible voters participated in September’s Charlotte municipal primary — and can make an informed choice.

“A slate that’s 14 strong is complicated for anybody to keep track of, even those of us who are really paying attention,” said Sara Baysinger of the League of Women Voters.

Half the candidates are making their first run for public office, and some have a low profile in the community. Two have not been attending forums and don’t have websites. And there’s not much money in the race, which means voters aren’t seeing a lot of advertising. Only four of the 14 reported raising $1,000 or more as of this month.

The League of Women Voters teamed up with Friendship Missionary Baptist Church to sponsor a forum that drew 10 of the 14 contenders. The league doesn’t endorse candidates, so Baysinger didn’t critique individuals. But she says it became clear that some were well prepared and some were not.

“We’re just feeling like there are a lot of candidates that haven’t really done their homework and are unprepared for the job,” she said last week.

Looking for themes

The school board race coincides with a $2.5 billion bond referendum for CMS construction and renovation. Baysinger says at the forum some candidates didn’t seem to understand how school bonds work, and others gave ambiguous answers about whether they support the bonds. WFAE got similar results with its voter guide bond question: A mix of support, opposition and unclear or missing responses.

To get past broad answers about improving safety and academics, demanding transparency and supporting teachers, some voters will likely be looking for phrases that signal a stance in the culture wars.

Baysinger, for instance, says she heard “dog-whistle terms about getting back to traditional education or getting back to nuts and bolts, which to me signals sort of anti-LGBTQ+, anti Black and brown history.”

But Republican political consultant Larry Shaheen says those phrases signal a much-needed focus on improving academics.

“We have got to get back to the basics,” he said last week. “Stop teaching diversity studies, stop teaching LGBTQ issues and get back to reading, writing and arithmetic.”

Shaheen also says the lack of well-prepared high-profile candidates is a challenge, and he wishes the business community would step up.

“We need executives at the C-suite level running for every district and running at large,” he said. “We used to have that. We don’t have that anymore.”

Minority challenges spotlighted

Improving academic results — especially for the Black and Latino students who make up almost two-thirds of CMS enrollment — is a central theme for all the candidates. Those students had proficiency rates below 45% on state exams last year, compared with approximately 80% for white and Asian students.

Caleb Theodros, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus, says that and the bond campaign are driving discussion among people he talks to.

“One of the biggest things that I hear is the need for infrastructure at select schools, and so, you know, of course that coincides with the bonds being on the ballot,” he said. “But outside of that it’s really going to be to drive an ever-increasing student outcome, to make sure that the graduation rates or level of readiness is not so disproportionate.”

Wendy Mateo Pascual says Latino leaders created the Latino Civic Engagement Committee in hopes of getting representation. This is the second time a Hispanic candidate has been on the at-large ballot for CMS board.

“So we need representation. We need a voice that can bring to the table the needs of the Latino students and families,” she said. “Because right now it’s not working for our people. And there is no providing the kind of support and education that our children really need.”

But Pascual says many Latino families are not used to voting in off-year elections. Her group is trying to get them interested this year.

Advocates and tickets

Last year Shaheen, who’s a lawyer, represented a new group called Success4CMS, which paid for billboards supporting some school board candidates and opposing others. Shaheen says he’s no longer associated with that group, which highlighted problems in the district and blamed some incumbents for keeping schools closed during the pandemic.

A Success4CMS board member, lawyer Kimberly Herrick of Concord, says the group “still exists but chose not to directly participate this election cycle.”

Annette Albright, a 2023 candidate who told WFAE she’s a member of Success4CMS, is now running on a three-person CMS Unity ticket, which has generated speculation about who’s backing that effort. Albright and Claire Covington are unaffiliated, and Michael Johnson Jr. is a registered Democrat. Albright and Johnson told WFAE they’re like-minded local candidates who aren’t steered by outside interests, and their financial disclosure reports indicate they’re not getting donations from PACs or parties.

Meanwhile, the Mecklenburg Democratic Party is promoting three of its own candidates: Liz Monterrey, Lenora Shipp and Monty Witherspoon. Local party chair Drew Kromer says the group decided to pick only three, even though 11 of the candidates are registered Democrats, to focus party votes in a crowded field where the margin between a third-place win and a fourth-place loss could be slim.

But the African American Caucus of the Mecklenburg Democrats is pushing for a slightly different slate: Shipp, Witherspoon and Shamaiye Haynes. Haynes, who is Black, finished just out of the running in the full party’s endorsement vote. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus is also pushing Haynes, Shipp and Witherspoon.

Scan the slate

Here’s a thumbnail sketch of each candidate, with links to campaign sites and other additional information. Read further to see how to watch their responses at candidate forums.

  • Annette Albright is an unaffiliated voter making her third run for the board. She’s a former CMS behavior modification technician who sued the district “after being violently assaulted by students” in 2016, and she has pushed for school safety improvements since then. Her four children went through CMS schools, and she is a former education chair for the local NAACP. She’s running as part of a three-person Unity ticket that’s “calling for real change and reforms to prevent the continued decline of the state of public education in CMS.” Read more.
  • Peggy Capehart is a retired educator from Fairfax, Virginia, who came to Charlotte five years ago. She’s a Democrat making her first run for office. She doesn’t have a campaign website and hasn’t been attending candidate forums. Capehart said last week that she has been sick but has recovered and is starting to distribute flyers. 
  • Claire Covington is a first-time candidate who is also running on the Unity ticket. She’s an attorney, a CMS parent and the daughter of educators. She is registered unaffiliated. Her website says her legal expertise will make her an effective part of a team that can “make effective changes to the $2.2 Billion industry known as the CMS School Board.” Read more.
  • Bill Fountain is a Republican making his second run for school board. He’s retired from teaching and the Air Force, where he was a lieutenant colonel. During his 2022 campaign for the District 1 board seat, Fountain emphasized his opposition to what he called “woke culture” among the board’s majority. This time around he’s talking about accountability, safety and classical education.  Read more.
  • Juanrique Hall is a Democrat making his second run for the board. He’s an aviation and diesel mechanic who also works with youth advocacy and violence prevention. He has done time in prison and says that helps him connect with teens facing challenges, urging people to “vote for someone who has been through the struggle just like you.” Find more on his Facebook page.
  • Omar Harris is a CMS parent and National Guard veteran making his first run for office. He’s registered as a Democrat. He does not have a website and has not appeared at candidate forums, but says he’s making personal contacts. “I don’t want to do a dog-and-pony show,” he said last week. 
  • Shamaiye Haynes is a Democrat making her first run for office. She’s been active in education advocacy for seven years, including as a founder of the Westside Education Think Tank and a member of the CMS Bond Oversight Committee. She has one child who graduated from CMS and another who is in private school but may return to CMS for high school. She’s been endorsed by the Black Political Caucus, the African American Caucus of the Mecklenburg Democratic Party and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators. Read more
  • Michael Johnson Jr. is a first-time candidate who’s the third member of the Unity ticket. He’s a CMS parent, a minister, a business consultant and a Democrat. He says his work in strategic planning will help him make change in the district. Read more
  • Brian Kasher, a Democrat, is a former CMS environmental health and safety manager making his first run for office. Kasher left the district after clashing with officials over building safety issues, and since then he has been a vocal critic of CMS leadership, transparency and safety. His campaign website includes a 43-slide presentation on mold, air quality and water quality. Read more
  • Tigress Sydney Acute McDaniel is a Democrat making her first run for school board. She has run for other local offices, including county commissioner and mayor of Charlotte. She has studied law and filed dozens of lawsuits representing herself, before a Mecklenburg judge blocked her from filing further suits without getting approval. She describes herself as “a Black woman from the hood who achieved uncommon academic and professional feats.”  Read more.
  • Liz Monterrey is a first-time candidate who came to Charlotte in 2020 and has a preschool-aged child. She’s the daughter of Cuban immigrants and says she wants to be a voice for the Latino community. A Democrat, she’s one of three candidates being backed by the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party. Read more.
  • Lenora Shipp, the only incumbent on the ballot, is a retired educator seeking a second term. She chairs the board’s policy committee and served on the superintendent search committee that chose Crystal Hill to lead the district. A Democrat, she’s endorsed by the Mecklenburg Democratic Party, the African American Caucus of the local party, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators. Read more.
  • Clara Kennedy Witherspoon is a retired school counselor who’s making her second try for the board. She’s a Democrat, a CMS graduate, author and founder of a religious group that works with disadvantaged families. Read more.
  • Monty Witherspoon is a minister who’s making his third run for the school board. He’s a Democrat and the father of two young children. He’s been endorsed by the Mecklenburg Democratic Party, the African American Caucus of the local party, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators. Read more.

The two Witherspoons on the ballot are not related.

Learn more

Get information about early voting here.

Here are some opportunities to watch CMS board candidates field questions from community groups.

  • Watch candidates Juanrique Hall, Claire Covington, Bill Fountain, Shamaiye Haynes and Annette Albright speak to the Sara Stevenson Tuesday Forum.
  • Watch candidates Clara Witherspoon, Brian Kasher, Liz Monterrey, Lenora Shipp, Monty Witherspoon and Michael Johnson speak to the Sara Stevenson Tuesday Forum.
  • Watch candidates Monty Witherspoon, Liz Monterrey, Bill Fountain, Annette Albright, Shamaiye Haynes, Tigress McDaniel, Lenora Shipp, Clara Witherspoon, Michael Johnson and Claire Covington speak at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.
  • Watch candidates Lenora Shipp, Shamaiye Haynes, Bill Fountain and Monty Witherspoon speak to the African American Caucus of the Mecklenburg Democratic Party.
  • Watch candidates Michael Johnson, Brian Kasher, Tigress McDaniel, Liz Monterrey and Clara Kennedy Witherspoon speak to the African American Caucus of the Mecklenburg Democratic Party.

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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.