As candidates start filing for the CMS board, an intense campaign season is under way – WFAE

Filing opens Monday for six seats on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board. It’s the last district in the region to formally launch the campaign season, in a year that’s seeing intense interest in school board races across across the country.

Since the last school board election cycle, the country has been roiled by controversy over COVID-19 safety, academic setbacks from remote learning, racial inequities, how to deal with school violence, and how racism, gender identity and sexual orientation are dealt with in schools.

New people are paying attention to their local school boards, sometimes steered there by social media and national campaigns. On the right, a national group called Moms For Liberty, which describes itself as a parental rights organization, has launched chapters in Mecklenburg, Union, Cabarrus and Iredell counties.

Brooke Weiss head shot.png

Ann Doss Helms



Brooke Weiss

“We’re very concerned about student outcomes and safety within the schools and feel strongly that it’s time for new leadership,” Mecklenburg chapter President Brooke Weiss said in April, at an emergency meeting where the CMS board fired Superintendent Earnest Winston.

Weiss said that change was not enough: “And so now Moms for Liberty is going to turn our attention to the November elections, and hopefully getting some new board members seated.”

On the left there’s Red Wine & Blue, a national group created to mobilize suburban women against what one organizer calls right-wing scare tactics. Janice Robinson, the state director, works with members in Mecklenburg and Union counties.

Janice D Robinson head shot.png

Janice D. Robinson

“It’s like the latest outrage of the week to basically scare suburban moms — and specifically white suburban moms — so that they will come out and vote for their candidates,” she said.

In Union County she says there’s now a coalition of parent and educator groups that got together during the pandemic “as kind of a counterprotest to what they saw was going on at the school board, where there was some moms going down and, you know, pushing the school board to not institute a mask mandate.”

New candidates in Union County

Some of those newly mobilized people are now running for Union County school board. Union County is among 42 North Carolina districts that hold partisan school board races. All five races on the November ballot are contested.

Maria Palacios, a former teacher and mother of three, is making her first run for office. She’s a Democrat challenging Republican incumbent Gary Sides, even though she knows “it’s going to be extremely hard to beat a Republican in Union County.”

Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats almost 2-1 in Union County, and eight of the nine current school board members are Republican.

Palacios is part of a local group called Save Our Schools, and says she turned out last fall to criticize the board’s handling of COVID-19 decisions. She didn’t feel like members listened to her remarks or follow-up emails.

“So I said you know what? I’m not speaking at a board meeting again. I’m just going to run for the board and see where that takes me,” Palacios said.

Jodi McConkey, another first time candidate running as a Democrat, says COVID-19 is what got her engaged with the Union County school board too. She spoke to the board for the first time in October.

“I walked into that board room shaking. I was so nervous,” she recalls. But when she finished speaking, “Oh my gosh! Honestly, it was amazing. When it was done, honestly, I felt like I could do anything.”

She’s running for the seat being vacated by board Chair Melissa Merrell, who is running for county commissioner. 

Sandra Greene, the Republican facing McConkey in November, and Coleen Kamolnik, a Republican challenging the only Democratic incumbent, did not respond to requests for interviews. Both appear to be political newcomers who recently became active in school politics.

Greene’s campaign bio says that since the start of the pandemic “[she has] actively been at our school board meetings to rally and make public comments with regards to mask mandates, quarantine and contact tracing protocols, critical race theory, and parent involvement in our schools.”

Kamolnik’s campaign bio says her family moved to Union County schools at the start of the 2021-22 school year.

An unusual election for CMS

For the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, this is an unusual election year on many levels. Normally the six district seats would have been on last year’s ballot, but delays in Census data brought delays in creating new voting districts. And that means instead of being on the ballot with municipal races, the board seats are on the ballot with a full slate of partisan federal, state and county races.

Larry Shaheen

That has Republican political consultant Larry Shaheen practically salivating.

“Here’s the difference between this year and every other year: They’re on a general election in a Republican wave year,” Shaheen said. “They better be ready. Because these folks are coming for them.”

The CMS race is nonpartisan, but like most bodies in Mecklenburg County, the school board is majority Democratic. Three incumbents with a total of 25 years’ experience — Republican Rhonda Cheek, Democrat Ruby Jones and unaffiliated Margaret Marshall — say they’re not running. So there will definitely be new faces in December.

But Shaheen says widespread frustration with everything from guns at schools to plummeting test scores to poor decisions by district leaders could lead to more turnover.

“What I am seeing and hearing is a level of discontent with CMS that I have never to this point encountered. And it is bipartisan,” he said.

He’s working with a new group called Success 4 CMS that’s mobilizing to recruit and support new candidates. Shaheen says organizers want to remain anonymous, but he says it’s not a partisan effort.

Representing students of color

When COVID-19 disrupted schools, virtually every school district and every type of student lost ground on test scores. But CMS, which kept students home longer than many nearby districts, saw bigger drops. And the numbers are especially grim for Black and Latino students.

Jordan Pineda

Jordan Pineda says that highlights the need to elect board members of color who understand those children’s lives. Pineda, whose father is Mexican, ran for the CMS board in 2019. He has since moved out of state and writes about school board election reform for the progressive Century Foundation.

“That is the ultimate question, right, is why should we have affluent white people, who do not share the lived experiences of the young people they’re looking to serve, making decisions for young people of color,” he said.

Currently six of the nine CMS board members are white, while only one in four students are white. The board has never had a Latino member, even though Latino students make up almost 30% of enrollment, with numbers that are growing while other racial groups shrink. The pandemic highlighted the struggles of students and parents who don’t speak English and don’t have access to technology.

“As percentages increase and as Latinx voices kind of culminate more, I do think we’ll start to see more of the Latinx community sort of starting to stand up as they see that their students, their English language learners in particular, are not being served,” Pineda said.

In a recent article about increasing Black and Hispanic representation on school boards, Pineda said he’d like to see changes to increase voter turnout, especially among young people. An election that coincides with federal and state races helps, he says, even if it’s a fluke for CMS. Electing members by district also increases the odds that less affluent neighborhoods will be represented, he says.

Seeing who’s in and out

School board elections in the Charlotte area bring a mix of schedules and approaches. Those with partisan elections, including Union, Iredell-Statesville and Lincoln counties, held primaries in May to narrow the field.

Some nonpartisan boards, such as Cabarrus County, filed earlier in the year. Cabarrus has 11 candidates running for three at-large seats.

Gaston County has its school board filing from July 8 to Aug. 5. The district members on the ballot there are elected countywide, with the district system simply guaranteeing that at least one board member lives in each township.

In CMS, some candidates have been campaigning for weeks, but it won’t be clear who’s in the race until filing ends Aug. 12. Mecklenburg voters will vote only for the seat in the district they live in, based on district lines that have changed significantly since the last district election in 2017.

CMS board members elected in November will jump quickly into decisions about hiring a new superintendent, reviewing student assignment, preparing for a bond campaign — and, of course, improving academic achievement.

And they’ll roll quickly into the 2023 election season, when the three at-large members are on the ballot.