Koch brothers-backed AFP pledges to campaign against school bond

Superintendent Beverly Emory gives a presentation at West Forsyth High.

Sentiment among dozens of people who turned out to hear about a proposed $325.8 million school bond at West Forsyth High School in Clemmons on Thursday evening was split roughly between those who support the new investment and others who are skeptical that the county can afford it.

Six people wearing matching green Americans For Prosperity T-shirts — a conservative political group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers — occupied a section of the front row of the auditorium at the high school. Field Director Robert Watkins pledged that Americans For Prosperity will be campaigning against the bond assuming it gets on the ballot for the November general election.

Robert Watkins
Robert Watkins

“We’re gonna be visiting you,” he said. “We’re gonna knock on every door, every one of your neighbor’s doors, and we’ll let ’em know: It is time to stop spending. It is time to start managing our money properly. Because if we don’t our children and our grandchildren will suffer the consequences.

But others said they support the bond.

“People I’ve spoken to believe replacing middle schools should be at the top priority to address overcrowding and traffic control,” said Britney Dent, vice president of the Lewisville Elementary PTA. “People are going to debate, but we believe the well being of students should not be debated.”

The proposed bond includes $27.0 million to build a new middle school on Robinhood Road that would relieve overcrowding at Meadowlark Middle School and Jefferson Middle School, which serve students at the western end of Forsyth County.

The Lewisville Town Council has passed a resolution in support of the bond.

“Thank you for including a new middle school,” said former mayor Dan Pugh. “We know it’s desperately needed, and you’re doing the right thing.”

Eric Martin, a retired Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools employee who lives in the West Forsyth High School attendance area, reiterated a request the school board has been hearing from urban leaders since last fall to build a new middle school in East Winston. Martin said previous school boards have under-invested in middle schools in the Winston-Salem’s urban core while building new schools “in rural neighborhoods and at the edge of the city limits, resulting in travel times of up to an hour each way for inner-city children who are bussed out to Kernersville or the west side of Winston-Salem.

“I like the neighborhood concept, but it’s time to complete the concept and build a residential middle school in East Winston, so those kids can enjoy what our kids out here enjoy — staying in the neighborhood.”

Some parents argued the opposite.

“Lewisville Elementary is a top-performing school, but yet they are not receiving the additions,” said Melissa Williams, who has two children at Lewisville Elementary and Meadowlark Middle School, complaining that the funds were going instead to three south-central elementary schools with low end-of-grade test scores: Easton, Griffith and Ward. All three schools are more overcrowded than Lewisville Elementary.

“So I would like to know why we are giving additions to failing schools instead of schools like Lewisville that are succeeding,” Williams said. “Why can we not move more students to the succeeding schools instead of putting more money in failing schools?”

Kerri Brogan, whose three children attend Southwest Elementary in Clemmons and who works as an administrative assistant for the school district, questioned plans to renovate Philo-Hill Magnet Middle School on the south side of Winston-Salem at a cost of $17.1 million. She also questioned why the district would focus on schools that receive federal Title I funds, which are designed to help schools with high percentages of children from from low-income families meet academic standards.

“I don’t want to take my kids out and send them to a private school,” Brogan said. “But unless things have changed — why are all the schools on this bond either Title I or low-performing? I have nothing against those schools, but why are our kids being put to the side when we are paying for it, too? It’s not fair and it’s not right.”

Superintendent Beverly Emory

The Americans For Prosperity group applauded after Brogan’s remarks.

Superintendent Beverly Emory defended the school district’s plans to invest in Philo-Hill.

“Part of the capacity increases happen when we’re going to do renovations to a building anyway,” she said. “The thinking is, if you’re gonna touch and you can add capacity you should do so. But I challenge you to go to Philo-Hill tomorrow, next week and sit in that building for more than 15 or 20 minutes and wonder how we’re providing an adequate educational facility. The lighting is horrible. So some of these things are not just about where’s the growth and capacity. Some of them are about our sort of moral imperative to improve the learning environments of 50-plus year old buildings that haven’t been touched in previous bond issues.

“And you hit on some of the heart of what really makes this tough,” the superintendent concluded. “We really would like to do it all. But the difficulty becomes in the choosing. When you’re given a ballpark estimate of what is a realistic number to ask for and you have needs, you’re always leaving something out.”