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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

How one decision led to three school board members losing their bids for reelection

One of the biggest local stories on Election Day was the ouster of three incumbents on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board. WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson, in his On My Mind commentary, says a name not on the ballot might have been the most important one.

There was a ghost candidate on the ballot in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board elections last week. His name was Earnest Winston, and he haunted three board members right out of office.

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Board members Rhonda Cheek, Carol Sawyer and Sean Strain all lost their bids for re-election. With two other incumbents choosing not to run, that means the nine-member school board will have five new faces next year.

They shouldn’t get comfortable. School board members catch more hell than just about any other elected officials, in Charlotte and elsewhere. That’s been more true than ever over the past three years, as CMS tried to navigate the pandemic, closing and re-opening and re-closing schools in a way that made nobody happy.

It would have helped to have a strong superintendent in charge, somebody who could inspire trust in a difficult time. But the county was stuck with Winston.

The board hired Winston in 2019 after superintendent Clayton Wilcox left for murky reasons that CMS has still never fully explained. I suspect the board saw Winston as the anti-Wilcox—a fresh face with a clean record. But he had never even run a school, much less a school system. And he turned out to be the Matt Rhule of CMS—a nice guy who just wasn’t up to the job.

So in the middle of a critical, stressful time for schoolchildren and their parents, CMS had an inexperienced, indecisive leader that the school board not only chose, but gave a raise and a contract extension in 2021. In April of this year, the board fired him. But they kind of botched that, too, in a way that made people sorry for a superintendent most of them didn’t want in the first place.

Voters couldn’t do anything about any of that—they don’t get to choose the superintendent. But they sure as heck get to choose the school board. It’s no surprise they took it out on the board members up for re-election. Strain lost even though he voted against Winston’s contract extension. I’m guessing voters didn’t make that distinction.

Now Hugh Hattabaugh, the interim superintendent, has announced that he’s leaving six months before his contract was due to expire.

The new board will almost immediately jump into a search for a new superintendent. Qualifications needed: The ability to run a school system with more than 140,000 students, perpetually angry parents, and a history of superintendents who get in trouble or just get run off.

Welcome, new school board members! And good luck with that.


Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.