13 Vie For Three Seats On CMS Board. The Results Will Shape Big Issues.

Oct 17, 2019

Almost everyone who lives in Mecklenburg County has opinions about the school board: Whether they make the right student assignment decisions, whether they're building schools in the right places, why they can't seem to keep a superintendent.

But when it comes time to vote for members, that's another matter.

Turnout is usually low for off-year elections, and school board races can get lost in the focus on municipal races, which have primaries, and ballot questions like this year's sales-tax referendum.

"I’m not sure people know what the individuals stand for yet," Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce President Bill Russell said at a sparsely attended school board candidate forum in Cornelius.

Even Gregory Denlea, who's running this year, acknowledges he hasn't voted in past school board elections because he knew little about the candidates.

Denlea's among 13 people are seeking the three at-large seats. With Ericka Ellis-Stewart and board Chair Mary McCrary stepping aside, that means at least two will be new.

Everyone in the county will see 13 candidates on the ballot (one of them, Olivia Scott, says she's not actively campaigning), and the top three will win four-year terms on the board. The six district members are up for election in 2021.

The race is nonpartisan, which means there's no party identification. But a check of voter registration shows one Republican, two unaffiliated voters and 10 Democrats.

[RELATED: 2019 VOTER GUIDE: CMS BOARD OF EDUCATION]

The board's vice chair, Elyse Dashew, is the only incumbent running. Ericka Ellis-Stewart and board Chair Mary McCray are both stepping aside after eight years, opening the way to new leadershp.

Five challengers have run before — Queen Thompson is making her fourth try — and the rest are newcomers to the political scene.

The idea of researching 13 contenders, most of whom aren't widely known, can be daunting. But consider the stakes of decisions the board will make in the next four years.

There's likely to be another student assignment review and a school bond campaign, requiring a new list of construction priorities. Superintendent Earnest Winston, who started the job in August, has a three-year contract that allows dismissal for any cause with just 60 days' notice. That means the board must decide whether to keep him or start the process anew.

Here's a quick roundup, in the order candidates will appear on the ballot.

Annette Albright, a former CMS employee, has been vocal in her criticism of the board's leadership and candor, especially as it relates to the superintendent churn. "We need leadership on the CMS board that is transparent, honest and works with the community," she said at a forum.

Albright, who is unaffiliated, first ran for the board in 2017. At that time she had an active lawsuit against CMS, having sued in 2017 over her dismissal as a Harding High behavior modification technician. She says that suit has now been settled and includes a nondisclosure agreement.

Dashew, a CMS parent and a Democrat, has served four years on the board. She doesn't dispute her challengers' contention that CMS faces serious challenges, from unequal opportunities for students to tension among adult leaders. But she contends her experience will be a plus moving forward.

"I have been through the learning curve, a steep learning curve," she says. "We have big challenges in this district with no silver bullet solutions."

Jennifer De La Jara, a Democrat and first-time candidate, is education director for International House and has history of working with immigrant students and families — a large and growing population in Charlotte.

She says one of the district's biggest challenges is getting needed money from the county and state, and one of her top goals will be helping Winston succeed as superintendent.

De La Jara and Dashew are the only board candidates who had raised more than $25,000 as of Oct. 1, according to campaign finance reports.

Gregory Denlea, the only Republican in the race, says he's running to serve as a voice for the suburban towns that have been locked in a struggle with CMS over municipal charter schools. He lives in south Charlotte and teaches at University of Phoenix.

"I am the only candidate that is here to support the suburban communities, especially Cornelius, Mint Hill, Matthews and Huntersville," he said at a Cornelius candidate forum.

Jenna Moorehead, a Democrat, is a Charlotte newcomer who was president of the board of the Bellafonte Area School District in Pennsylvania. She is a school social worker.

Donna Parker-Tate is a retired CMS principal making her first run for office. She touts her experience teaching, leading schools and coaching principals as preparation.

A Democrat, Parker-Tate says she'll fight for equity, including advanced classes in all high schools.

Jordan Pineda, a Democrat and first-time candidate, is a former CMS teacher who works with Teach For America and is trying to launch a group that would support boys of color. He says he wants to reduce school segregation.

CMS has not had a Hispanic school board member. Pineda, whose father was Mexican, says he can be a voice for that community and other students who are too often failing under the current education system. 

Olivia Scott, a Democrat, ran for school board in 2017 and filed again this year. But she emailed to say she is not actively campaigning.

Lenora Shipp, who is also a Democrat and retired principal, is making her second run for the board. She cites her deep ties to the district — as a CMS student, a West Charlotte High graduate and 33-year employee — as giving her insights.

"I am still licensed and certified to do the job, and I have recently been in schools doing the job for our children," she said.

Stephanie Sneed is a lawyer and community activist making her second try for the board. A Democrat, she works with the Westside Education Think Tank and a new eastside group that's organizing.

"I have been on the ground working with parents, disadvantaged parents," she said. She reports having raised just over $10,000, well ahead of anyone except Dashew and De La Jara.

Duncan St. Clair, who is unaffiliated, is a political newcomer who runs a coffee business. He's a West Charlotte alumnus who says the school board should engage with climate change and renewable energy. He also suggests that splitting CMS into smaller districts might improve the district's effectiveness.

Thompson is a former CMS employee who cites her training in federal compliance and says her voice is needed to combat what she calls "education malpractice" that is dividing the county and sending families fleeing to other school systems. She is a Democrat.

Monty Witherspoon is a pastor and first-time candidate who grew up in Charlotte.  He says he failed two grades in CMS and went on to earn college degrees, including a doctorate. He says that experience can help him be a model to boys of color who are often failing in school.

Witherspoon is a Democrat.