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School board appointee James Ross 

Jan. 13, 2009


James Ross talks about synchronizing clocks at schools, making sure phones are promptly answered, and putting quality toilet paper in the bathroom stalls in short, making schools work better.

And he talks about giving teachers more power and dropping half of the school system's "policies" and ignoring that high-poverty schools resegregate minorities  and giving academic credit for football all in order to refocus entirely on making a difference in children's lives, wherever they are.

Independent and determined consumer advocate? Terminally nave rookie? Canny politician?

The Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum was full of people Tuesday trying to get their first read on James Ross. In coming days, we will post here as much of that conversation as possible to help others make their own judgment on Ross, the African-American Republican recently appointed to represent District 3 by a deeply divided school board.

Ross said he'd run (unsuccessfully) for elected office twice as a Republican and twice as a Democrat. "I'm flexible," he joked. But the time for flexibility is ending: He faces key votes tonight on a replacement for Vilma Leake from District 2 and on election of a school board chair. All he would say about those matters Tuesday morning was to acknowledge a linkage: that the District 2 vote would determine the outcome of the chairmanship vote.

[Tuesday night, Ross joined the Democrats in electing Molly Griffin chair and naming Kimberly Mitchell-Walker to serve the unexpired term of District 2 Democrat Vilma Leake, who resigned to take her seat on the Board of County Commissioners.]

 Ross is a native Charlottean. He has been active in civic life for decades and served in the James Martin administration in N.C. state government. He has long run a business consulting firm. It's hard to make a case that he is nave.

At first blush, Ross is very funny. He thanks Forum co-founder Sarah Stevenson for convincing him decades ago not to swear in public. He has a memory for names in an audience, though in most cases that shows with people he has known for years.

It's hard to tell sometimes when he's serious. Is better-quality toilet paper in schools a real issue he will pursue even as schools are leaving teacher positions unfilled. Or is it a metaphor for how the local school system should go about its business longer-term?



Ross noted that response after his appointment had been "overwhelming."

"There was some obvious opposition to a Republican being named to that seat and it had nothing to do with James Ross. It had to do with folks wondering if they could trust 'a Republican' to do what is in the best interests of this community. And I think the opposition was to some generic Republican, whatever that is. And once folk found out that it is James Ross, they said, 'oh well... oh, THAT Republican. That's OK.'

"What has been interesting is the, I think I've been to four meetings?... has been the passion, the real passion on that board for children and education in this community. Now, when you watch us on television it might not come across that way because there are some disagreements. But there is a real passion on that board for education and the children in this community.

"I think where I am somewhat bothered is unbridled [passion] can sometime be destructive, so what I would we would do is that we would be able to focus our passion in a direction that is good for this community.

"The other thing that I have been struck by is the amount of cooperation. The other night we were doing our legislative agenda, and we had a number of items on there that passed 8 to zero. That means that everybody on the board voted for a particular agenda item. Now, I asked the question. I'm not sure if that was rare, if it didn't happen very often, but at least it happened the other night, and I was very pleased by that. We had a meeting yesterday with the delegation, our delegation to the North Carolina General Assembly. That was very heartening, the number of people who showed up for a breakfast meeting to listen to us. Had some good questions, and it was good to see.

"I can remember the first time I ran for public office, in 1970 I think it was, we did not have district representation. We had everything at large, and I ran for the North Carolina House. They picked the top eight, there were eight people who were picked at that time [in the first primary]. I ran twice and I came in ninth both times. No one can convince me that there were eight people ahead of me that were more qualified to serve than I was. But the problem was, everything was at-large. And so thank God for district representation because now we have some diversity, both in the General Assembly and on the school board, on the county commission and the city council -- and in the Washington thing with Mel Watt. So thank God for district representation." [Malachi Greene from the audience: "And the Voting Rights Act."] "And the Voting Rights Act.

"So with that I will just be quiet and answer any questions.

"The other thing is that I did not personally know any member of the school board before I was selected. I've heard names, obviously, but I had not met anyone personally. And it's been a joy. I've gotten to know Tom and Molly and Kaye. I've gotten to know these folks as persons now and that's been a real joy. I've spent time on the telephone with everyone on the board except may Ken Gjertsen. We've talked but he is the only one I haven't had long conversation with. That's been really a revelation to get to know these folks not as school board members but as real people. And so I'm very appreciative of how they have accepted me and how they shared with me."



In the following Q&A, questions have been paraphrased. Nearly all those who asked questions began with some form of congratulations to the new office-holder.

Q What should residents of DIstrict 3 expect from you?

A "I have two grandkids in District 3. Mine are at Statesville Road Elementary School, two boys. And I want them and every other child in this school, in this order: safe, disciplined, creative, flexible environment. Let me say that again: a safe, disciplined, creative, flexible environment. I will do everything in my power to create that kind of environment in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System. Because I think if we have a safe, disciplined, creative, flexible system, children will be able to learn. And I'll do everything in my power to bring that about."

Q Have you studied suspension rates and dropout rates?

A "The other night at the meeting, one of the items on our legislative agenda had to do with dropout rate, and I questioned the use of the word dropout. I think that's too late. I am more interested in retention than I am in dropout. If we have a child in school let's do everything we can to make sure we keep that child in school and let's not wait until he or she separates and then try to do something.

"So one of the things I am mighty interested in is what I call vocational/entrepreneurial opportunities in school.

"There are children leaving school to run businesses. Unfortunately, they are illegal businesses, and we end up putting them in jail. Why not enroll those kids in some kind of entrepreneurial experience so they can take their business and entrepreneurial expertise and make an honest, legal living? And I've asked about vocational schools but don't want just vocational schools. I want vocational/entrepreneurial, so we're not just training someone to work for someone, but we're also training someone to open their own business. There are a number of kids who will leave the school system and start their own business. Unfortunately, it's the wrong kind of business.

"So I don't like the word dropout. I like retention. And the other night, when I brought this up, that was one of the things that was voted 8 to zero, for us to do, which was to change from the notion of dropout to talking about retention."

Q You were quoted as saying you would not seek election in the fall. What do you expect to accomplish?

A "Well, I have been told by 99% of the folks I talk to, 'Don't even bring that up any more. How do you know, why did you even say that in the first place? And don't say it anymore.'

Q Why did you.

A "Cause I'm not the smartest person in the world. I walk on water on Thursdays only. The other six days I just fumble around like regular folk. And so I talk too much, sometime. My wife reminds me.

"I spoke out of turn."

Q What have you done?

A "The short answer is I'm from Griertown. Folks who are from Charlotte would know what that means, but you're not a native Charlottean. Well, what that means is that Griertown is a community that fostered freedom and independence from the time I was a little kid growing up out there. It is located between one of the richest communities in Charlotte, Eastover, and one of the moderate poor sections of town which was down Monroe Road at that time. And Griertown was smack dab in the middle of it. It was an African-American community entirely surrounded by European-American communities. And for some reason it fostered a certain independence. And so from the time I was a little kid til today I've just been taught and believe with all of my fiber that i am a free person, and that's the way I act.

"That's one reason I'm Republican. People ask, 'why are you Republican?' Because I'm free."












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