School board elections during non-presidential election years aren’t always at the front of mind for the average voter — for those without children, even less so.
With three seats up for grabs in this year’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education race, there may be some candidates who hope to take advantage of that apathy at a time when debates over COVID-19 measures, trans youth inclusivity and Black history in schools has led more people to seek power within the school district.
Due to the upcoming departures of CMS Board Chair Elyse Dashew and at-large representative Jennifer De La Jara, this year’s election will see at least two new representatives on the board.
The third at-large rep, Lenora Shipp, is running for reelection. Early voting begins on Oct. 19.
There are currently 14 candidates registered to run for the three available seats, three of whom make up the CMS Unity slate, a trio of candidates who have claimed Democratic or unaffiliated backgrounds but are now facing questions about their apparent Republican support.
Learn more: Mecklenburg County Election Guide 2023
Carolina Forward, a nonpartisan, nonprofit policy organization in North Carolina, raised red flags early in October when they claimed that the candidates of the Unity Slate — comprised of Annette Albright, Claire Covington and Rev. Michael Johnson Jr. — are hiding their Republican backing.
Carolina Forward was the first group to report that all Unity candidates listed the same two Republican campaign treasurers, Joe Patton and Collin McMichael, in their candidacy filings, and all three have listed the same Raleigh PO box that was used by Ted Budd’s Senate campaign.
All three candidates also use Anedot, a Republican fundraising platform whose top vendors, according to money-tracking research group Open Secrets, include The Lincoln Project, New Journey PAC and American Conservative Union — all right-wing political organizations.
Carolina Forward’s findings came from the North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBE) Campaign Finance reports, all of which are public information.
The site pulls up Campaign Finance Documents from any committee or candidate registered with NCSBE, an easy task for anyone willing to do it, and anyone who knows what they’re looking for.
While CMS board races are nonpartisan, leaving political affiliation off the ballot, some progressive-minded folks in Mecklenburg County believe the portrayal of the Unity slate as a left-leaning trio is an attempt by conservative operatives to install like-minded representatives in seats of power in a largely Democratic district.
It’s a plot that local Democrats are especially sensitive to just months after N.C. Rep. Tricia Cotham, having won her seat by running on a progressive platform, soon thereafter switched sides to the Republican Party, giving them a supermajority in the North Carolina General Assembly.
Even as a Democrat, Cotham held views largely shared by the GOP, including privatizing education dollars and voting for anti-immigration bill HB10 and anti-education bill HB17, pointed out current CMS Board member Jennifer De La Jara.
“I and others were not surprised when she finally changed over.”
De La Jara believes Cotham’s switch, however outrageous, was a gift to Democrats, serving as an opportunity for them to wake up, reevaluate their message and recognize the responsibility the Democratic Party has in putting forth their best candidates, as she wrote in an op-ed published by Queen City Nerve in April.
Is the CMS Unity slate “pulling a Cotham”?
According to CMS Unity’s website, the group’s mission is “to lead the necessary transformation, delivering a brighter future of hope and economic success for all CMS students.”
“Through nonpartisan collaboration and the backing of the business community, we will advocate for a return to time-tested educational approaches, providing an apolitical classical education in a safe environment,” the site reads.
CMS Unity’s messaging expresses its goal to take politics out of education, and while De La Jara admitted that such a goal has a lot of surface-level appeal, it is extremely naive, she insisted.
“Education, by default, is absolutely political for one reason alone: All of our policy and funding decisions are made by politicians,” De La Jara said.
“I agree we need to be less polarizing about it, but to act like we want to take [politics] out signifies that people don’t understand what the core function of the job is and why the politics actually matter.”
Annette Albright made headlines in June 2016 after a video surfaced of a group of students assaulting the then-CMS behavior modification technician at Harding High School.
She said she was then let go after filing a workers’ compensation claim and later sued the district.
Now, during her third attempt running for the CMS board, Albright champions implementing disciplinary models to prioritize the fight against school violence.
First-time candidates Claire Covington and Rev. Michael Johnson Jr. are running on similar platforms, advocating for improved academic outcomes.
Unity’s website condemns the current state of CMS, warning that a lack of drastic change will doom students to the same “terrible educational outcomes” the district has seen for decades.
“It’s tailored to toe the line of the conservative message, trying not to be obvious about it,” De La Jara said of the Unity slate’s platform. “But it doesn’t take much to uncover what’s hidden beneath that language is very much conservative views towards things.”
De La Jara said coded conservative language presents a false dichotomy of choice. If CMS Unity is for parents’ rights, that must mean the opposition is against it.
“All of that ends up becoming a great distraction from the actual really important work of monitoring student outcomes, which is what the school board does,” she said.
De La Jara warned that Republicans have figured out, generally, that Democrats are going to win Mecklenburg County’s at-large elections, so they’ve concluded the best way to carry forth their conservative message is by running under the unaffiliated or Democrat banner.
“Republicans have caught on that Democrats have not been paying attention and that it’s very easy to say out loud that you are a Democrat,” De La Jara said.
Carolina Forward policy fellow Jordan Lopez agreed that as long as Republican organizations disguising themselves in nonpartisan races say the right things, they can work their way into a school board seat, even if they hold ulterior motives.
Rev. Michael Johnson Jr., the only registered Democrat in the slate running alongside two unaffiliated candidates, refuted Carolina Forward’s post claiming CMS Unity’s Republican backing.
“As a first-time candidate, I wanted to ensure I adhered to ALL campaign finance laws and regulations,” Johnson wrote in an email statement to Queen City Nerve. “My current treasurer came recommended as his firm has worked on campaigns for Republicans AND Democrats throughout the state.”
Although it makes sense to Lopez that Unity Slate candidates may have been advised to use Patton and McMichael as treasurers, it still raises concerns, he said.
“You’ve got to know who you’re working with … when you’re running for office,” Lopez told Queen City Nerve. “The firms you use, the treasurer you use, the software you use for fundraising, it matters.”
Lopez said Democrats typically use ActBlue, a campaign fundraising platform that specifically serves the Democratic party.
“When you use the types of consultants, advisors or platforms that are traditionally used by a party that has publicly and … verbally attacked public education, it will raise red flags,” he said.
CMS Unity treasurer McMichael’s firm, CM&Co. LLC, has received nearly half a million dollars from Republican and unregistered PACs since 2017, according to Transparency USA.
Johnson pointed out that approximately one-third of CMS schools are considered low-performing and the Unity slate is looking to bring the necessary changes that will academically improve student outcomes, increase their chances to enroll in higher education, find work following graduation or enlist in the armed services.
“[Carolina Forward’s post] is nothing more than an attempt to smudge our name and character since they cannot refute the message and purpose of our platform,” Johnson told Queen City Nerve.
Albright and Covington did not respond to a request for comment on Carolina Forward’s findings.
A closer look
If you want to take the time to look into candidates, Lopez suggests voters pay attention to who they are talking to and where they’re trying to get their money.
“If you look at their campaign finance report … there’s always that wink and a nod that, I think, campaign donations end up implying.”
Albright has received single $100 donations from multiple private citizens who regularly post conservative content in support of ultra-conservative groups like Moms for Liberty on social media. She’s also received a $100 campaign donation from Pat Cotham, longtime Democrat on the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners and Tricia Cotham’s mother.
Johnson also received a $200 donation from conservative reverend Marty McCarthy, who in 2000 set out to open a network of private “Classical Christian” schools that would be run on “Kingdom values” called the Regent Schools of the Carolinas.
Other than those few $100-$200 donations, the CMS Unity candidates have not received any significant donations from political action committees (PACS) or Republican organizations.
According to WFAE Ann Doss Helms’ Education newsletter, however, Albright said the Unity slate plans to seek endorsements together and admitted she is a member of the conservative PAC Success4CMS.
Success4CMS surfaced during the local 2022 elections, showing support for a few candidates, namely District 6 incumbent Sean Strain, and publicly opposing other more progressive candidates.
As reported by WFAE, the group spent upwards of $19,000 on billboard advertising, with $7,800 directed at criticizing District 4 incumbent Carol Sawyer’s role in keeping students in remote learning during the pandemic.
De La Jara said she is interested to see whether the group releases similarly divisive endorsement ads for the CMS Unity ticket as this year’s election nears.
Carolina Forward also raised suspicions against the Unity slate’s affiliation with Moms for Liberty (MFL), an anti-government organization branded an “extremist” group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Carolina Forward later removed MFL’s logo from its post in response to a report from the president of the Mecklenburg County chapter of MFL, Brooke Weiss, claiming they have nothing to do with the Unity slate.
While the organization does not publicly endorse CMS Unity, Weiss and Albright are friendly on social media, with Weiss commenting on a Jan. 18 Facebook post by Albright, “I sure am hoping you will throw your hat in the race this coming November.”
District 2 candidate Juanrique Hall remains the local MFL chapter’s only publicly endorsed candidate.
Hall, a longtime coach at West Charlotte High School and violence interrupter in the Historic West End, recently partnered with Moms For Liberty to host a backpack drive.
Hall did not respond to Queen City Nerve’s request for comment on his affiliation with the organization.
None of the Unity Slate candidates have endorsements from the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party, which has thrown its support behind Lenora Shipp, Liz Monterrey and Monty Witherspoon.
While organizations and party structures can do a better job of educating voters on the databases and resources available to them, Lopez admitted the majority of people are not likely to dig through finance reports for school board candidates.
Organizations like Carolina Forward, however, try to fill that void.
Carolina Forward’s posts awoke thousands of viewers to the reality and importance of local elections.
“Most people don’t pay attention to school board elections,” the post read. “That’s what they’re counting on.”
For De La Jara, the more engagement the better.
“We may not all ultimately agree,” she said, “but the fact that people are paying attention in a new way to local politics is, of course, a win for our community.”
It’s easy to let our eyes collectively wander to D.C. or Raleigh for the latest outrage or news cycle, she continued, “but we can’t take our eyes off the local government … because it really does matter.”
Early voting begins Thursday, Oct. 19 and ends Saturday, Nov. 4. General elections are on Nov. 7. Learn more at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections website.
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