Saturday, January 14, 2012

In a difficult moment, a picture of grace

The picture was taken after the meeting began. David Knoble and Amelia Stinson-Wesley, two candidates for a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board seat, were seated next to each other. They had met just two days before and had talked only briefly, so when Stinson-Wesley reached for his hand 10 minutes into the meeting, Knoble was surprised.

He’ll even admit he was a little uncomfortable.

But he didn’t let go.

Did you notice the photo? It was published in last Friday’s Charlotte Observer, the day after the CMS Board of Education appointed Stinson-Wesley to fill a vacant District 6 seat. That image, with its gentleness, seemed not to fit with that meeting, at which a Democrat-heavy board bluntly asserted its will by picking another Democrat to represent a majority Republican district. A lot of unhappy words have followed, including in this space, but in the midst of what went wrong that night, one thing didn’t.

Up until that moment, about 10 minutes in, David Knoble thought he had a decent chance at being Mecklenburg County’s next school board member. He and his wife, Kelli, have lived in District 6 for 14 years, and both have been active and well-regarded in the school system. At that Thursday meeting, some people prematurely congratulated Knoble and joked that they might run against him in two years.

Stinson-Wesley was sitting next to him by then. She was quiet, mostly, although the two talked a little and learned they had a mutual friend from Duke Divinity School. Then the board came in, and the nominations began.

Knoble’s nomination, from former District 6 representative Tim Morgan, was expected. But when board member Tom Tate nominated Stinson-Wesley, the room was stunned. She reached for Knoble’s hand. He smiled. He whispered to her: “You know you have the vote.” She whispered back: “You don’t know that yet.”

But she did have it, and inside, Knoble was deflated. He’d spent a couple years thinking about pursuing a school board seat, and he’d been encouraged to do so by people inside CMS. Now his hopes had dried up and blown away, and the job was going to the woman holding his hand.

He considered letting go at this point – and he could’ve diplomatically done so with a pat of the hand and encouraging smile. Instead, he thought of all the things coming Stinson-Wesley’s way. Not only a learning curve that will challenge even a smart woman like her, but the yoke she’ll carry through it as the Democrats’ pick in a conservative district.

Knoble knew this, too: People were watching them right then, watching him, and although no one could possibly be as disappointed as he was, there surely were some who were angry. He wanted to show them, too, that it was OK. “One of the great things about our country is the ability for us to choose who we want to make big choices,” he says now. “I wanted to respect the process.”

So he held on, as did she, appreciatively. “It was a connection,” she says, and when it was over, he gave her a hug and went home, where his son asked if he had won. There was no easy answer, just as there often won’t be in the next two years, in a school system with such disparate needs and populations, each kicking up storms of anger.

So he told his son “yes and no.” He hadn’t been selected for the school board seat, but he had given it his best. It’s there for us to see. A moment of grace in a moment of disappointment. Such a simple, difficult thing to find.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The familiar call of the arrogant

Because we can.

Do you recognize that? It’s the call of the arrogant, the powerful – or at least those who believe themselves to be. It’s the explanation we get from people who don’t think they need to explain themselves, and last week we heard it in words and in deeds from those who’ve forgotten whom they serve.

In Raleigh, House Republicans held an after-midnight veto override vote early Thursday without giving the public notice – unless, possibly, you happened to be on the General Assembly website at 12:15 a.m. It was a vote Republicans could have held on any morning or afternoon and achieved the same result, yet they inexplicably decided to invite criticism by doing it with the stars shining down.

When asked about that vote, House speaker Thom Tillis, normally a savvy guy, said this: “The fact of the matter is we got it done.”

Because we can.

It’s why Democrats on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education voted to fill a vacant District 6 seat last week with someone who doesn’t represent the district’s conservative demographic. Led by board chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart, a Democrat, the board selected Rev. Amelia Stinson-Wesley, another Democrat, who would likely never win a District 6 election and who, like most everyone else in the room, suspected she wasn’t the most qualified.

Before her at-large election in November, Ellis-Stewart had proclaimed that she could represent the whole district instead of the low-income children for whom she’d previously advocated. But on Thursday, she and the other four Democrats chose one of two Democrats among the 12 District 6 candidates – and only after it was clear the other Democrat would come with too much political baggage.

Because they could, of course, just as Republicans did with a vacant school board seat three years ago. Now, Democrats hold a majority on the board, and Ellis-Stewart got the most votes of any at-large candidate in November. What kind of threat could a small geographic slice of grumbling conservatives pose?

Here’s one: Last month, county commissioner Bill James floated the idea of a Town of Ballantyne, one that would de-annex several South Charlotte communities from the city. While the rest of Charlotte snickered at the notion, officials and others have been making plans about meetings, boundaries and signatures that would make the concept real.

James, who says he is not one of those officials, says that “stage 2” of the plan would be for Ballantyne, along with Mint Hill, Matthews and Pineville, to ask the legislature to form their own South Mecklenburg School System. Is it all a long shot? Yes. But those who roll eyes should remember they are dealing with a population of do-ers who are accustomed to accomplishing what they want.

These suburbanites wouldn’t mind the lower taxes that would come with deannexation. And while they are far from the first citizens to feel this way, they are tired of the disconnect from the leadership of Charlotte. They are tired of those leaders calling them selfish for wanting the good things most parents want for their children. They are tired of the arrogance, which they saw again in a school board that chose politics over public good.

And the thing is – none of us were surprised, no? Not at the school board, nor at Republicans in Raleigh, nor at the latest dysfunction we saw last week in Washington. We’ve come to expect the contempt our elected officials show us, and we too often fulfill their expectation that we’ll shake our docile heads and do little else. But history is also filled with voters who rise together in protest, and with politicians who learn they had less of a mandate than they thought – as Thom Tillis might understand if he someday runs for statewide office.

And if the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board follows last week’s slap with policy that disregards its now-underrepresented district, more citizens might finally feel compelled to do what has only been talked about before. Not because they necessarily want to, and not because it would be good for Charlotte. But because they can.