Embattled Charlotte school board wants to hide at the bottom of the ballot

General Assembly should remove carve-out in election bill

Bombarded with criticism from all sides, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board is now trying to hide at the bottom of the 2022 ballot.

The General Assembly shouldn’t let them.

In North Carolina, most local governments hold their elections in odd-numbered years, like 2021. But with results of the U.S. Census delayed, several dozen municipalities across the state that elect representatives by district will need to delay their elections to avoid legal challenges.

A bill to help them out is nearly complete. Senate Bill 722 would move most of these local elections to early 2022 — with Election Day falling on March 8, April 26 or May 12, depending on how the U.S. House and Senate primaries go.

The city of Charlotte’s elections will happen on that schedule. But not the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, at least under the current version of the bill.

In a special carve-out, the CMS board’s election would be delayed until the regular 2022 general election in November. The school board requested the special treatment, says legislative guru Gerry Cohen.

[Update: CMS Executive Director of Government Affairs, Policy, and Board Services Charles Jeter said he has told legislators that the board would be OK with a March election. Nevertheless, that’s not in the current bill.]

A nonpartisan plurality election, like many school boards run, falls on March 8 for everyone else. Even this is not ideal. But the legislative carve-out would put the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education race at the bottom of a long ballot that will include perhaps the most expensive U.S. Senate race in the country, U.S. House races with new lines and an additional district, General Assembly contests and statewide judicial races.

The thing is, the CMS school board hasn’t earned it. After the year they’ve had, these key elections need as big a spotlight as possible.

A dismal year

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools locked down harder and longer than nearly all the school districts in North Carolina, even as evidence mounted that children were not all that susceptible to contracting or spreading COVID-19. Thousands of students have fallen behind due to the months of all-remote learning.

But even setting the pandemic aside, the past year has been particularly controversial — with the school board blundering through leadership challenges and a lack of direction.

In August 2019, the board hired Earnest Winston as its superintendent, a former newspaper reporter with virtually no academic experience. He had previously served as chief of staff to previous superintendents. The choice came with no search for candidates. After running off the past few superintendents over petty squabbles, the board presumably wanted somebody more easily controlled.

That appears to be the case. Winston has proposed no strategic plan or given the nation’s 17th-largest school district much direction, even as low-income schools continue to stagnate in poor performance.

Still, the board gave Winston a contract extension and raise this February in an 8-1 decision (Republican Sean Strain was the only dissenting voice).

Soon after, the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners crafted a proposal to withhold $56 million from the school district until the CMS board comes up with some sort of a plan for moving forward. In North Carolina, counties are responsible for funding a significant portion of education expenses, including school buildings and teacher pay supplements.

The unusual proposal brought together an even-more-unusual alliance between Charlotte’s conservatives and its most liberal Democrats. The dispute is currently in mediation.

In the latest misstep by the board, the CMS board released a statement on Thursday blaming young women who have alleged they were raped at their high school for their situation. Last week, WBTV reported on two lawsuits claiming the school district did not do enough to investigate reports of sexual assault on campus.

In a disgusting and tone-deaf response, the school board declared that “[n]either case was a rape,” claimed there was nothing the district could have done, and even smeared one of the students for dropping out of college for unrelated reasons they are “prohibited from disclosing.”

The statement was deleted some hours later, but is preserved in a screenshot here:

Under the spotlight

Off-year elections have their own dynamic. Without the spectacle - or the money - of a national-level race, municipal elections in odd years get the full attention of the electorate. Turnout is lower, but the people who do vote have the opportunity to be engaged on local issues.

With the Census delay, Charlotte and other cities lose that focus. Holding their elections on primary day or the month after is the next-best thing. The March 8 election will be fairly high profile as Democrats and Republicans select their nominees for the U.S. Senate, but there’s simply a lot less money and a lot less attention paid to a primary. The general election for these municipal races will likely be top of the ticket.

If ever there was a year school board elections to get special attention, it’s this one. Voters deserve to weigh in on how districts handled remote learning, and how they plan to discuss Critical Race Theory.

With the ponderous decisions made by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg board, there’s all the more reason to give their race as big a spotlight as possible.

Instead, the General Assembly’s carve-out will mean the school board’s district representatives will hinge primarily on national political dynamics.

The board shouldn’t be allowed to hide at the bottom of the ballot. Before the bill goes to the governor, the General Assembly should remove the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education carve-out and give voters the chance to think carefully about their choices.