City council considering property sale for new Ashley Elementary

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Real Estate Administrator Kirk Bjorling responds to questions from city council members on Monday. (photo by Jordan Green)

A panel of the Winston-Salem City Council unanimously recommended selling city-owned property north of Cleveland Avenue Homes to Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools for a new school to replace Ashley Elementary on Monday.

“If you’re going to be the drum majors, and you’re going to carry that for us, and you’re going to work with the parents and the teachers and do what needs to be done, but not just after we vote on this, and when Mr. [Assistant Superintendent Darrell] Walker and them starts doing the project that they won’t see you anymore,” Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke told a group of community advocates at City Hall during the meeting of the finance committee on Monday. “I hope you’ll be committed, hope you’ll be dedicated, because little black boys and girls should not be walking the streets lost and be not able to read any more than a third-grade level.”

Burke’s support was considered crucial for the property transfer because the proposed school construction site is located in the Northeast Ward, which she has represented for more than four decades.

Under the proposed sale, the city would sell 18 residential lots between East 21st Street and Bethlehem Lane east of Highway 52 to the school district for $276,000. The city-owned properties have been under option by the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem since 2005, so the proposed sale would rescind that offer. Councilman Robert Clark said the housing authority supported the sale of the properties to the school district.

The recommendation will go before the full city council for consideration on Oct. 21.

The current Ashley Elementary, located six blocks to the east, has been the focus of intense concerns about environmental safety, segregation and educational equity.

School board Vice Chair Barbara Hanes Burke, who is Mayor Pro Tem Burke’s daughter-in-law, singled out Ashley Elementary for special attention during the 2018 campaign.

“We have eight elementary schools in this school system, again, that are flat-lining,” she said. “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 say this is justified when lives are being affected, when the students are being hurt and harmed.”

During the 2017-2018 school year — the most recent data that is available, 81.5 percent of Ashley Elementary students were considered economically disadvantaged, compared to 44.3 percent across the state. Only 37.1 percent of teachers at the school had 10 years or more of experience, compared to 55.8 percent in the district.

Replacement of Ashley Elementary was on a preliminary list of projects included in the 2016 school bond — when the school district was in discussions with the city about the proposed property transfer — but was dropped from the final list.

“We’re working on a redevelopment plan that the city is looking at as part of putting a new Ashley into that, that would also include daycare, pre-K, K-5 and a health center,” Walker told community leaders during a 2015 meeting.

“That’s what we saw in your recommendations that we were like, ‘Yay,’” then-Superintendent Beverly Emory told community leaders at the time. “That’s where our minds are at, and it was nice to be validated by the community and neighborhood.”

Four months later, when Ashley Elementary replacement was dropped from the list of proposed bond projects, then-Chief of Staff Theo Helm said, “That was something in our long-range plan that the board felt like all the pieces that would need to happen wouldn’t fall into place for it to happen in this construction cycle.” While Helm declined to comment at the time about negotiations with the city to obtain the property, it is clear that the sale was put on hold.

In the fall of 2017, teachers at Ashley Elementary began reporting complaints about health concerns related to mold, according to a report in the Winston-Salem Journal. The health concerns led to a federal civil rights complaint filed by the Action 4 Ashley Coalition (now Action 4 Equity) and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in August 2018. That month, Walker again indicated the school district was in discussions with the city to acquire property to build a new school to replace Ashley.

City council members and City Manager Lee Garrity on Monday displayed a preoccupation with a federal grant the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem and the city are seeking from the US Department of Housing & Urban Development to redevelop the area around the proposed school site. The housing authority has twice applied for and failed to secure a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods Implementation grant, and plans to submit its third application next month.

Mayor Pro Tem Burke suggested during Monday’s finance committee meeting that the area is unsafe.

“Now, our Winston-Salem police is up there every day,” she said. “I had said to the person that is the acting […] that you need to get more security in the area. Because when we’re up there starting at the a.m. on the corner of 16th and Liberty, the individual sits daily in the a.m. on their little cart, you know, on the ground. And then on 17th Street between Liberty and Cleveland, you have people who are there — the visitors acts more like the residents, and the residents who live there are afraid.”

Garrity offered, “I think the only way to change that neighborhood is it’s going to take some redevelopment.”

Eunice Campbell, the chair for education for the Winston-Salem NAACP and a board member of Action 4 Equity, addressed city council last month. She said residents were tired of hearing excuses that the city couldn’t move forward without approval of the federal grant.

“Why are we waiting?” she asked. “We have to wait until November for that to even be turned in. And then wait for a decision. Every year we wait, we lose students. Proficiency. Student graduation rates. We’re talking about some real issues, an impact the city council can actually make on our school district. And I’m asking you to think about what you’re really asking parents to do when it comes to waiting. Because for a lot of parents, that’s not an option. We have to move quicker when it comes to the education.”

Campbell said on Monday that she felt gratified that the finance committee took action to recommend that city council approve the sale. But she added that it will take more activism and more public commitment to get the new school built that Ashley Elementary students deserve.

Assistant Superintendent Darrell Walker told council members the cost of building a new school is estimated at $20 million to $30 million.

Those funds could from the next school bond cycle, as school board member Dana Caudill Jones proposed last year. Or, Campbell said, the Forsyth County Commission could authorize the school board to reallocate funds from the last school bond that voters approved in 2016. Campbell said she worries that officials will wait until the area gentrifies to build a new school instead of working to meet the needs of the current residents.

“Next stop is the county commission,” she said.

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