A tough year in the spotlight for Lennon

School board member gets mixed reviews

by Christina Ritchie Rogers

Rhonda Lennon observed her first anniversary on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board last month, after a particularly divisive year. Reeling from significant cuts in state and federal funding, the school system she now helps lead is not the same.

And, it seems, neither is she.

The same board member who once made headlines for tweeting during school board meetings went a month without posting a status to her Facebook page or adding new messages to her account on the social media network Twitter. In that same time, she deflected media interviews and even declined a meeting with a fellow board member prior to voting on one of the most critical issues of her tenure – the recommendation to move Davidson IB Middle School to J.M. Alexander Middle School in Huntersville.

Lennon declined multiple requests for an interview for this article.

“You can see the stress she’s under,” Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte said. “She tends to wear her emotions on her sleeve. But she’s as prepared to serve on this board as anyone.”

Even the most prepared member of the school board members could not have anticipated the tumult the system would endure in such a short time. But Lennon and her peers can’t afford to lose momentum. State officials are warning of even larger budget cuts in the year to come, and schools are sure to face more changes.

Lennon fought hard to get her chance at the table. She spent years advocating as a parent of north Mecklenburg students, serving on Huntersville’s School Advisory Committee, which acts as a liaison between the town and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She’s also served on the Board of Education’s Citizen’s Capital Budget Advisory Committee and the N.C. School Building Solutions Committee.

She ran unsuccessfully for the District 1 seat on the Board of Education in 2005. When incumbent Larry Gauvreau stepped aside, Lennon, who was well known, gathered endorsements from other local officials and won the seat handily in 2009.

Town leaders like Cornelius Commissioner Jim Bensman endorsed her wholeheartedly in 2009 and continue to support her today.

“She’s a very smart lady, very numbers-oriented,” Bensman said. “I think she’s doing fine.”

Number crunching and communication

The ability to crunch numbers and analyze data is important, particularly now, as more budget cuts loom in the near future.

Numbers drove Lennon’s decision to vote at the school board meeting Nov. 9 in favor of moving the Davidson IB program to Alexander Middle. The system will save money by closing an aging school building, better make use of the Huntersville school and give more students access to the IB program.

On paper, the decision to move Davidson IB was a no-brainer, as all but one school board member approved the move.

But the data did not account for the non-measurable reasons to keep Davidson IB in Davidson. Many parents and community members reached out to Lennon, arguing the school’s location is a major factor in its success. But Lennon did not budge, leaving many Davidson IB parents feeling under-represented on the school board.

Lennon showed similar conviction in her dealing with overcrowded Torrence Creek Elementary School. She fought to keep the school as-is for next school year instead of re-drawing boundaries.

While Lennon has remained consistent in her thinking about both north Mecklenburg schools, some parents read Lennon’s steadfastness as stubbornness and an unwillingness to listen to constituents with differing opinions.

Lennon asserts that she hears everyone but remains sensitive to the fact that there are many voices that go unheard.

“It’s always good to hear from the public in a setting like a forum,” Lennon said, following the community forum at Hopewell High School in October. “But I would never base a vote on how many showed up to speak.”

The forum was one of about a dozen scheduled to discuss proposed changes to district schools. At that forum, about 100 Davidson IB parents showed up to support keeping the program in Davidson.

“I’m learning in public service that often the majority doesn’t speak,” Lennon said at the time, “and you’re probably missing out on the undercurrent of that majority.”

As disappointed as some parents were with the final vote on Nov. 9, some were more disappointed by Lennon’s dealing with them.

“I know there has been some controversy around some of the statements she’s made, but so what,“ Bensman said. “As a public figure, no matter what, some people will like what you do and some will not. There’s no way to do anything that’s 100 percent positive to all people.”

On the other hand, Tarte observed, “Everybody’s got to be accountable at every level and remain open with their thinking and accessible.”

Lennon’s tone and demeanor in dealing with unhappy parents seemed to add lemon juice to open wounds.

Mecklenburg County Commission District 1 Representative Karen Bentley declined to address Lennon’s actions on the board directly but did speak to the importance of communication between elected officials and their constituents.

“The response we get from our constituents is predicated on the way we engage our constituents and communicate with them,” Bentley said. “There is so much to be gained if you can engage the public positively, even with bad news.”

Davidson Commissioner Margo Williams was saddened that Davidson IB would be moved, but trusts that Lennon and other board members did their best given the circumstances.

“Throughout the process I gave (Lennon) the benefit of the doubt that she wanted input, and I have no reason to think otherwise,” she said. “It wasn’t a decision made in a vacuum.”

Lennon’s digital voice goes silent

But Davidson IB parents point to Lennon’s dismissive tone during many e-mail exchanges over closing the school’s building.

In one such exchange between Lennon, select parents and PTSA members concerning moving the IB program to Alexander Middle, some felt her attitude was terse.

“I have clarified dozens of times. I am sure you can ask one of the people  you copied, and they will forward all my e-mails to you,” Lennon wrote parent Nan Buckley, in the exchange.

In response to Lennon’s e-mail, Buckley wrote:

“…You are an elected official and as such should be able to answer questions from the people you represent. I am appalled that you would write the below to me as I honestly wanted to know your reasoning…”

Lennon responded: “Thanks for your comments Ms. Buckley.”

News of the e-mails spread throughout Davidson IB parents.

“I heard of her responses to other people, and it discouraged me from reaching out to her one-on-one,” Davidson IB parent Wendy Readling said.

Readling voted for Lennon last year but said she has not met her expectations for a district representative.

“You feel for” the school board members, Readling said, “that they’re in the middle of all this. But I expect my district rep to be open, to support all of the schools in her district, and to be open to finding new ways to support those schools.”

“I try to go into things very open minded,” Lennon said following the Hopewell forum, “but once I process information, it’s hard to turn me around.”

At-large school board member Kaye McGarry couldn’t get Lennon to discuss the issue either. As a board, “the more we discuss and have dialogue, the better the decisions will come out,” McGarry said. She regularly asks fellow board members to sit down for one-on-one conversations, she said.

“I’ve tried to meet with (Lennon) several times,” McGarry said, in particular prior to the Davidson IB vote on Nov. 9. Lennon always deflected her, McGarry said.
“It’s really hard to work with a colleague if you can’t sit down face to face,” she said.

Lennon told Mountain Island Weekly on Oct. 13 that she planned to stop responding to e-mails and would not make herself available for any interviews until after the Nov. 9 board meeting. Her decision was for her own mental and emotional health, she said.

She also stopped posting to her Facebook and Twitter accounts around that time. She posted to Facebook on Sept. 28 and did not post again until Nov. 6. Her last tweet came on Oct. 7, just before the community forum at Hopewell, and she did not tweet again until Nov. 6. She has posted regularly to both accounts since.

“I have confidence that she did the best she could given the difficult circumstances,” Bensman said. “(School board members) are not professional politicians. They’re lay people essentially volunteering their time. She’s there as a mom wanting to help the school system.”

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