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New leaders will shake up education advocacy in Charlotte

Two of the most influential public education organizations in Mecklenburg County will bring on new leaders in the next six weeks, meaning changes to the way this community advocates for its public schools.

The executive searches, which ran concurrently, prompted much speculation in education circles here, not only about who would be hired, but also about the strategic vision of both organizations.

Dr. Ross Danis
Dr. Ross Danis

MeckEd, a nonprofit that advocates for “strong public schools for all children,” announced last week that it had hired Dr. Ross Danis, a prominent New Jersey educator, as its next president. Danis ran the Newark Trust for Education for five years before leaving that post this summer.

Danis takes over from Dr. Bill Anderson, who left MeckEd this summer to work in a newly-created role at UNC Charlotte’s College of Education. Both men are former teachers and principals. MeckEd’s board of directors was drawn to Danis’ breadth of public policy experience, as well as his background in Newark, a district that struggles with many of the same issues that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools does.

“Ross’ fresh perspective, coupled with his extensive background in education, experience advocating for public schools in a large urban district, and his energy and entrepreneurial spirit will truly serve our community well,” said Richard Nichols, MeckEd’s board chairman and an executive with Merrill Lynch, in an announcement about Danis’ hiring.

Danis will start December 1. (Full disclosure: I worked at MeckEd under Anderson.)

Later that month, Sonja Gantt, a longtime Charlotte news anchor, will start as executive director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Public Schools Foundation. The foundation, which has been dormant for years, collects donations to support education programs and initiatives.

“We want our teachers to feel supported and not feel like what happens in their classrooms is limited by resources,” Gantt said in announcing she would leave WCNC’s anchor desk after nearly two decades. “I’ll be sharing the story of what’s happening in the classrooms with businesses that want to invest.”

Sonja Gantt
Sonja Gantt

A strong CMS Foundation was among the priorities laid out in the work of 22 community task forces that were organized in 2013 under then-Superintendent Heath Morrison. The Foundation task force said its goal was to “cultivate innovative partnerships with parents, caregivers and the community to provide a sustainable system of support for every child.”

Education boosters here believe it is possible — and necessary — to sustain a MeckEd and a CMS Foundation, despite the fact that both organizations may appear to have similar missions.

Supporters of both groups think of their strategic goals like this. The Foundation is largely a fundraiser for CMS-specific causes and partnerships. That could mean everything from school supplies for teachers at a Title I school to millions of dollars for a public-private partnership. MeckEd’s mission is far more program-based, including its advocacy and community engagement work, which CMS cannot do for itself.

How Danis and Gantt define those missions, and how they work together in a community with emotionally generous but tactically limited philanthropic support, will be essential to the success of both organizations.

I expect the new executives to draw on their experience — Danis’ public policy background and Gantt’s deep roots as a Charlottean — to clearly define where their respective organizations will go. And I’d bet that in a year, neither group looks like it does today.

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.