CMS board District 4 candidates want change for students facing setbacks

CHARLOTTE — Three candidates are vying to represent thousands of east Charlotte families on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Board of Education.

Next week, voters in District 4 will choose between a trio of women with experience in education: incumbent Carol Sawyer; Stephanie Sneed, a former chair of the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte; or Clara Kennedy-Witherspoon, a recently retired CMS employee.

Channel 9′s education reporter Jonathan Lowe sat down with all three candidates to learn why they’re running and what they’ll do if elected.

Low-performing schools and widening student achievement gaps in the area have been key issues for the two challengers.

The election marks the first time voters will have their say on how school board members across Mecklenburg County performed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sawyer is wrapping up her first term representing District 4 on the school board. She’s facing a tight race to keep the seat for another term.

“We are really making strides in our progress monitoring and improving student outcomes, so I want to be part of that,” she said. “I am probably the most targeted board member at this point … because I am effective, because I am a threat.”

FIND MORE coverage from The Political Beat HERE

Both Sawyer’s opponents boast extensive experience in the community. Kennedy-Witherspoon is a licensed school counselor who retired from CMS earlier this year after working as a support specialist.

“Most of my work was predominantly done in Title 1 schools, and I chose to work in those schools, because I felt like I wanted to work where I could have an impact and make a difference, and I felt like I did,” she told Channel 9.

Sneed’s background includes time practicing law in Child Protective Services and as chairwoman of the local Black Political Caucus. She now works as an employment attorney.

Both challengers said they’re running after seeing the achievement gap widen between minority students and their white peers during the pandemic.

Sawyer says the board did its best during a time of unprecedented challenges.

“I think it took a toll on all of us, it was very difficult, I can’t count the number of times our board would make a decision based on the information we had available and then it would change,” she said.

Many of the contenders running for school board this fall say it’s time to let go of pandemic excuses.

“I would say that there was some areas that had to be challenging for them, so I don’t want to have a negative connotation about what they did and did not do,” Kennedy-Witherspoon said. “I do think that we need some changes on our school board (like) a change in leadership on our school board.”

“What CMS is missing is … specific and targeted and aggressive goals, and it also can’t be a deficit view of students, so there has to be high expectations,” according to Sneed.

They point to school and student performance date released by the state Department of Public Instruction earlier this year that designated 50 CMS schools as “low-performing.”

“Some of the things that were happening had been happening before, such as low-performing schools,” Kennedy-Witherspoon said. “We know there was already 42 on the list, and so now that’s increased somewhat, so yeah, there’s a lot of change that needs to happen.”

Sawyer highlighted that same state data to show promise and progression at schools that have improved their grades exponentially from D and F marks in 2019, to C grades in the most recent report.

“I think we are focusing our resources in those schools, District 4 has a high percentage of Black and brown students, many, many of whom are English-language learners,” Sawyer said. “The board has started some work that I want to see through, I want the work that we’ve done to focus on student outcomes to become deeply embedded in the board culture.”

The next school board will also be tasked with selecting CMS’ next superintendent. The district has seen five of them come and go in the last decade.

“As an employment attorney, I believe that my skills and expertise will be of great value in the selection of the superintendent and to make sure that we have somebody who can stay long term and make sure that we are setting appropriate standards and goals,” Sneed told Channel 9.

On Election Day, District 4 voters will have their voice heard on who they are convinced is most capable of leading CMS.

“I have a passion for our students and equity and making sure that every child has what they need to be successful,” Sawyer said.

“I have worked in this community for a long time, and I’ve seen growth, and I’ve seen needs, and I just knew that I wanted to do something further,” Kennedy-Witherspoon said.

>> Watch Channel 9 reporter Jonathan Lowe’s interview with each District 4 candidate in the video at the top of this page.

(WATCH BELOW: Organization partners with CMS school to resume successful after-school tutoring)

Jonathan Lowe

Jonathan Lowe, wsoctv.com

Jonathan is a reporter for WSOC-TV.