Bill would require county commission to approve school-assignment changes

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A bill filed by two Republican lawmakers would limit the newly elected Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board's ability to redraw school assignment lines. (file photo)

Two Republican lawmakers from Forsyth County filed legislation last week that would require the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board to obtain approval from the Forsyth County Commission for any changes to student-assignment plans for public schools.

Rep. Debra Conrad

Reps. Debra Conrad and Donny Lambeth filed HB 518, entitled “County Commissioners Approval for Assignment,” on March 28.

Two separate bills, filed by Conrad and Lambeth on the same day, would introduce staggered terms on the school board and also overhaul the election system for Winston-Salem City Council by reducing the number of wards from eight to five while adding three at-large members.

The racial segregation of Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools was a major issue in the 2018 election. Candidates for the two seats in District 1, which covers much of Winston-Salem, unanimously assailed the School Choice assignment plan, which ended efforts to achieve socio-economic balance in the district when it was implemented in the 1990s. The election also tipped control of the school board, with Democrats sweeping all three at-large races. When the new school board was seated, two Republican members in suburban-rural District 2, crossed party lines to support Malishai Woodbury and Barbara Burke, the prevailing candidates in District 1, for chair and vice-chair, respectively. Woodbury is the first African-American to chair the school board.

Woodbury said she considers the legislation “a direct attack on black and brown and poor children.”

Rep. Donny Lambeth

While Democrats hold a majority on the school board, Republicans maintain control of the county commission. Republican Don Martin, formerly the superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, holds a crucial swing vote. Lambeth, the Republican lawmaker, formerly chaired the school board during Martin’s tenure.

Woodbury said teachers have told board members they’re concerned about the School Choice plan, while students have said it creates a system of “haves and have-nots.”

“I’m very disappointed in our state leadership in making a decision that continues to perpetuate inequality,” Woodbury said. “As the leader of the school board, my responsibility is to make sure that public schools afford children a sound, basic education, as required by the state constitution. I can’t do it when someone is creating a law to take away our power to do that. Our teachers and our students and most of the citizens believe the School Choice plan is not affording students a sound, basic education.”

Fleming El-Amin, a Democrat and one of two African-American county commissioners, commented on a Facebook thread that the legislative proposal “was not vetted by all county commissioners.” He added, “We don’t need another level of interference with the newly elected school board.”

Woodbury said the attorney for the school board is researching whether there are grounds for a legal challenge against the proposed law on that basis that it denies the board the ability to govern.

A history teacher by training, Woodbury reflected on her role as the first black chair of the school board while Forsyth County has also elected its first black sheriff.

“I thought about what we know as the end of Reconstruction,” Woodbury said. “That is a time in our history after very progressive amendments to our constitution. After 10 years of progression and the election of the first African-American senators and representatives, sheriffs, all kinds of political officer-holders, there was a backlash. Unfortunately, a few regressive minds were able to convince the majority: ‘Although we’ve taken 10 steps forward, let’s take 20 steps backwards.’ That’s how we moved into Jim Crow.

“We want nothing to do with Jim Crow; we want nothing to do with the aftermath of Reconstruction,” Woodbury added. “Our community is delighted to see the first black sheriff. There’s no need because we have African-Americans in leading positions that we need to regress. It’s just a few people that have more power than maybe they should have. That doesn’t make up the majority of people in Forsyth County and, prayerfully, the whole state. We’re a community that celebrates diversity and inclusion, and adheres to true democracy. I feel confident that our community is going to help us fight on behalf of the 55,000 students in Forsyth County schools.”

Lambeth and Conrad could not be immediately reached for comment.

The bill filed by the pair to revamp city council elections has drawn fire from Democratic Councilman Dan Besse, who ran against Lambeth for state House last year.

The new map double-bunks Besse with Robert Clark, the only Republican on city council, in the new District 5, while triple-bunking three black council members — Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke, DD Adams and Annette Scippio — in the new District 2. Besse said in an email that “the new map reduces the number of districts with either majority or near-majority minority voters” from four out of eight to two out of five.

The bill also shortens city council terms from four to two years.

The proposed five-district map
Winston-Salem’s current ward map

“If anyone believes these bills are not motivated by raw partisan politics, I’d like to offer you an excellent bargain on some swampland in Florida,” Besse said. “The ‘problem’ they seek to address is the increasing tendency of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County residents to vote for progressive Democrats in fairly drawn districts.”

The election system proposed by Conrad and Lambeth for city council in Winston-Salem resembles the arrangement in Greensboro, with the notable exception that Winston-Salem would remain partisan while Greensboro municipal elections are nonpartisan, and Greensboro recently switched from four-year terms to two-year terms. The hybrid system in Greensboro has been touted by its supporters for allowing every voter to participate in the election of five out of nine seats — one district representative, three at-large members and the mayor.

But Besse said the proposed legislation isn’t right for Winston-Salem.

“Compare the cost of running for office in Greensboro and Winston-Salem, and I bet you’ll see that the average cost of competing successfully for a council seat is much higher in Greensboro,” Besse wrote. “The size of the district makes an enormous difference in what it costs to win election. At-large seats in a city the size of Greensboro or Winston-Salem are almost exclusively the preserve of wealthy or corporate-backed candidates for that reason.”