Candidates for urban school board district want to roll back school segregation

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Alex Bohannon, Barbara Hanes Burke, Eunice Campbell, Chenita Barber Johnson and Malishai Woodbury (l-r) are running for two seats in District 1.

The two seats for District 1 on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board are guaranteed new representation with the retirement of Victor Johnson Jr. and Deanna Taylor. The election will be determined in the May 8 Democratic primary, with five candidates vying for the two seats. 

All five Democratic candidates vying for the two seats representing urban District 1 on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board are unanimous on the “School Choice” assignment plan, which was adopted in 1995: It needs to go.

“Quite frankly, that’s something that can’t be justified, and shouldn’t have been implemented to begin with,” said Eunice Campbell, taking the first crack at the most galvanizing question asked during a candidate forum at the Central Library on Monday. “It’s part of the systemic racism culture that is a part of our school culture — our district culture. Our schools are segregated, and that’s plain and simple. It has affected our students; it’s one of the reasons for our achievement gap.”

Barbara Hanes Burke, who is currently employed as an assistant principal at Carver High School, articulated a severe toll that she said has been exacted on the urban Winston-Salem schools that serve District 1.

“We have eight elementary schools in this school system, again, that are flat-lining,” Burke said during the candidate forum sponsored by the New South Community Coalition and the Big 4 Alumni Association. “Out of 1,114 elementary schools in the state of North Carolina, Ashley Elementary is at the very bottom. They are 1,114. I don’t know how you can say this can be justified when lives are being affected, when the students are being hurt and harmed. One of our core values in this system is equity. Another one is student-centered. If we are going to put these words on paper we have got to put some actions in place to show that is what we mean. We cannot be student-centered for some and not for others because of what their ZIP code is, because of what their family’s income is.”

She rattled off six other elementary schools in District 1.

“Our schools are suffering. They are in the bottom 5 percent in the state of North Carolina, right here where we have so many educators, so many degrees. We have all these people on the district level, the central office level, with PhDs, and we can’t figure this out? Some of that is because we’re not trying to.”

Malishai Woodbury, an equity trainer in the neighboring Guilford County Schools system, described District 1 as a “school desert.” Citing school data, Woodbury said students from District 1 are opting en masse to go to school elsewhere.

“At the root of it is a lot of parents are saying, ‘I want my child to have the best education possible, so I’m going to send them to a better school.’” she said. “That’s ironic because all of these schools are public schools. Why is one better than the other?”

Woodbury proposed a “community task force.”

“And let us think holistically together as human beings to progress beyond School Choice and to bring our community together so that our school district is a success for all of our students,” she said.

Chenita Barber Johnson called the School Choice Plan “terrible,” charging that it halted the progress towards school desegregation inaugurated with the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. As a solution, she proposed “centralizing” larger numbers of students under one roof to make it easier to achieve racial and socioeconomic balances that reflect the district as a whole. “That will integrate the students naturally,” she said. “They won’t have to do busing or anything of that nature, which tends to put a lot of people off.”

Alex Bohannon, at 23 the youngest candidate, responded, “This plan has disproportionately affected communities of color across this city, and that is a problem. To answer the question, I can’t [justify it].”

But Bohannon also made a point that’s more in line with proponents of neighborhood schools who have defended the current assignment plan.

“Everyone has to do what they can to change that narrative [that predominantly black and Latinx schools are bad],” Bohannon said, “because after you change that narrative, then we understand that your child can go to any school in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School system, and get a fantastic education.”

A change for the two seats representing District 1 is guaranteed with the retirement of the two incumbents. Victor Johnson Jr., who was appointed to the seat in 1997, is retiring from the board this year at the age of 83. Deanna Taylor, who is serving her first term, did not file for re-election. She has not publicly stated a reason for not seeking a second term. Johnson said in an interview that he is backing Woodbury, who was a student at Carver High School when the current school board member served as assistant principal, and Bohannon, who participated in a junior golf program run by Johnson.

Considering that no Republicans have filed in District 1, the May 8 primary will determine the two candidates who will represent the district.

Although the four white Republican incumbents who represent suburban and rural District 2 on the board did not attend the forum, the racial faultlines around school assignment policy were apparent. Leah Crowley, the sole challenger in the Republican primary for District 2, told voters she supports the School Choice Plan.

“When you as a parent can be involved in your child’s school because it’s right down the street or a short drive away, you’re more likely to be engaged in that school, invest in that school and be a part of your child’s education,” Crowley said.

For the two Democrats whose names will be on the general election ballot for District 2 in November, the issue is more politically hazardous: Their party ideology likely cuts against the preferences of the white, suburban electorate in the district.

Marilynn Baker, a Democrat from Kernersville, called it a “tough issue.”

“Let’s face it: When you hear ‘school choice,’ that does sound good,” she said. “But the re-segregation of our schools in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County is not okay. And we must as a community come together. And I like the idea of a community task force…. I like the idea of coming together as a community and coming up with an equitable solution within the next four years. We can’t let this continue to go on.”

Rebecca Nussbaum, who is the other Democrat on the ballot, hedged on the issue.

“We have an awful lot of work together,” said Nussbaum, who serves as director of career development and community outreach at the UNC School of the Arts. “We have a lot of barriers we need to break down. We have a lot of thinking we have to do. And I think this is not just a school issue; I think this is a community issue. What you might see in the microcosm of the school system is that it’s a problem. But I think when you start looking more broadly into the county you can say that it’s not just a problem in our schools; it’s a problem in our places of work, it’s a problem where we shop, it’s a problem where we eat.

“This is where the schools might be able to take the lead,” she added. “I think that’s always going to be the hope for all of us is that the schools are where hope lives.”

Candidates for District 1 also weighed in the role of police officers, or school resource officers, in schools in light of the Feb. 14 massacre in Parkland, Fla. and the disproportionate referral of black students into the juvenile system.

On police in schools

Campbell: “We need to spend more money on those mental issues that cause those frustrations so that we won’t have to call the police all the time. Yes, it’s great to know that the police is ready, but who wants to really call them for that issue?”

Johnson: “I think I want to say ditto on that one, because mental health is a missing piece. We tend to think that children have no issues. And children have issues every day. We don’t know what they go through at home, what they go through when they come to school, and bullying is a very real issue.”

Bohannon: “I do not believe that increased police presence is conducive to a learning environment, and to making students more comfortable. One of the things that has to happen — the school system is reviewing their security protocol — is making decisions on where security needs to be amped up. Something that’s part of the bond program is increasing the number of [surveillance] cameras at schools. That’s something I wholeheartedly support.”

Woodbury: “As a school board member, I would say that we need to make sure we’re planning with [the National Association of School Resource Officers] and the police department. The National Association of School Resource Officers has said that we need more SRO officers proportionate to their students.”

Burke: “No, we’re not prepared at every school. We’re not prepared at the school where I am right now. And yes, something needs to be done. We need to find the money to make sure that our schools are as safe as any other government building in the country. We don’t have to worry about whether these courthouses are safe. We don’t have to worry about whether these federal buildings are safe. We don’t have to worry about anyone going into the White House and shooting anybody.”

On criminalization of black students

Bohannon: “There is a little more of a microscope put on these students. There is a narrative that’s perpetuated. We need to take seriously the need for additional competency around how we’re interacting with students in the classroom…. When you meet someone from a different culture, sometimes as a teacher you project your expectations, not necessarily about what they’re supposed to learn in the classroom; it’s good to have expectations around learning. There has to be some work done on the expectation that students have to act a certain way or dress a certain way. If they don’t act in a way that teachers expect them to act, they’re not necessarily being disrespectful. They just act different. If they’re perceived as being insubordinate and the teacher reacts to that, it can escalate to where a student makes a bad decision.”

Johnson: “I think of that can be averted once teacher understand that students from culturally different backgrounds than they are from are going to express themselves differently.”

Woodbury: Said she helped implement a program in Guilford County Schools where schools that exceeded a certain threshold for suspending African-American males would trigger review from the superintendent. “I fully support that kind of initiative. If black males are disproportionately bearing the burden of suspensions, it’s incumbent on the school board to look at our policy on harassment and discrimination. You can use that policy to make sure we’re not discriminating against African-American males.”

Campbell: “Once we actually get it out into the public, we can do something about it. Some of it is unintentional bias. Some of it is intentional. Some people really don’t believe it’s happening. I sat in a meeting with a middle school teacher where she described her students as ‘criminals.’”

Burke: “As a school board member, to offset this problem, I would implement a platform that I already have ready for stepping into the position where… we focus on creating programs so that our students don’t receive discipline referrals in the first place.”

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