The Democratic women in the districts 4 and 5 Guilford county commission races differ with their Republican counterparts on school funding and policing in schools.
Opinions on school funding fall along party lines
In District 5, current Republican incumbent Jeff Phillips’ retirement leaves the seat open for Democrat Carly Cooke or Republican Troy Lawson this November. Cooke, who won the Democratic primary by a landslide against Macon Sullivan, will face Lawson, who previously served as the chairman of the Guilford County Republican Party and ran unsuccessfully for state House two years ago. The district radiates from the center of Greensboro, in and around downtown and then makes its way up north, ballooning out to the northern edges of the county, picking up all of Summerfield.
So far, Cooke is outraising Lawson with $22,133.75 ending cash on hand as of a July 9 campaign finance report compared to Lawson who reported less than half of Cooke’s total with $9,972 for the same time period.
During the primaries, Cooke expressed education funding as a large part of her platform and said that the pandemic has laid bare the lack of support that public schools have received in terms of funding the last few years.
“It’s become really clear as our county has navigated this that there’s a need for resources and support for the school system as a whole,” Cooke said in an interview with Triad City Beat. “We need to help the administration tackle the achievement gap that we see in our community, and the coronavirus has brought that to the surface.”
Cooke, who runs a real estate company with her husband, said she was disappointed in the county commissioners’ recent decision to pass a $300 million bond referendum to be put on the ballot in November. The original ask from the school board was $1.6 billion to fix school facilities.
“I think it was really unfortunate,” Cooke said. “I think it was shortsighted and a Band-aid for a gaping wound. We had an opportunity to address the facilities issues that are dire. Some of these buildings are at an emergency status. We had the opportunity to address that while also injecting a ton of investment into the community when our economy is going to need to be rebuilding post-COVID.”
In an interview from February, Cooke’s opponent, Troy Lawson, stated that he worked as a consultant for higher education and has worked as the director of admission for different schools in the area. He expressed concerns with the state of several school facilities like the ones at Page High School and Grimsley High School.
However, in a May 22 Facebook post, Lawson supported the Republican majority’s decision to vote for the $300 million bond amount.
“I want to express my support for the Republican majority on the GC Board of Commissioners for their continued support of our schools,” Lawson wrote. “[T]he commissioners have paved the way, in a balanced and responsible way (in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis) for voters to decide on another $300 million to address the most critical needs or our school facilities. Now that’s fiscal responsibility at its finest, if I do say so myself.”
Cooke said that she wished the county commissioners had taken advantage of the low interest rates and low project costs in the midst of the pandemic to make drastic changes for the schools.
“$300 million will just address leaky roofs and AC units but won’t move us forward into the future,” Cooke said.
Emails and messages to the Lawson campaign were not returned for this story.
District 4 makes up all of the eastern part of Guilford county, spreading from north of Julian near the Piedmont Dragway, through Whitsett and Sedalia to Browns Summit. The district has been held by Republican incumbent Alan Branson since 2012 and leans Republican as a whole. According to July campaign finance reports, Branson had $7,502.50 ending cash on hand for the latest reporting period while his opponent, Mary Beth Murphy, reported $4,043.84.
Murphy, a first-time political candidate, knows firsthand what it’s like to teach in an underfunded school. Murphy, who currently teaches at Western Middle School, said before her school was rebuilt three years ago using money from the 2008 school bond, the roofs would leak, and the mobile units were infested with mold.
“We had a kind of routine where everyone knew where to pull the trash cans from and where to put them to catch the rain,” she said. “We had poorly functioning systems and crumbling tile and grout. The mold in our mobile units was by far the worst. You could just open the door and instantly smell it.”
Like Cooke, Murphy said she was disappointed to hear that the current county commissioners voted for $300 million.
“I’ve watched over the last eight years the Republican county commissioners divest from Guilford County Schools,” Murphy told TCB. “Because local funding is the only funding for maintenance and capital outlay, what we’ve seen is a situation where our school buildings were already not in the best of shape turning into a crisis.”
One of the Republicans Murphy is talking about is her opponent, incumbent Alan Branson, who defended the $300 million bond in a phone interview on Tuesday.
“There’s never enough money for Guilford County Schools,” Branson said.
Branson, who was elected to the board in 2012, lamented the fact that there was $6 million left in the Guilford County schools budget last year for facilities maintenance that was never used.
“They are getting more money every year, whether it’s for salaries or benefits or whether it’s slated towards rebuilding schools,” Branson said.
The commissioner also reiterated that if voters pass the $300 million bond this November, the county commissioners can always vote to have another bond on the ballot in 2022. Branson said if this bond is passed by voters and the projects are completed successfully, that he would support another future bond. He also said a bond amount higher than $300 million would have failed in the midst of the pandemic.
On law enforcement officers in schools
The Democratic candidates and Branson also differed in opinion when it came to the issue of law enforcement officers in schools. Currently, both the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office and Greensboro Police Department have officers in the school system.
Murphy said she wants to see more investment go to hiring social workers, nurses and counselors for students and added that the need for officers in schools might change if schools had more support staff like the ones she mentioned.
“What we need to be investing in is helping students by meeting the needs of the whole child,” she said. “Law enforcement officers are not trained in child development. They are not trained in child psychology. They are not trained as mental-health practitioners. While they often have to serve in those kinds of roles, that’s not the role that they are trained for…. I think there are people who are trained to do those things and that’s who I think should be functioning in those roles.”
Branson expressed outright support for officers in schools.
“We definitely need them,” he said. “In my opinion, if you do the crime you pay the time…. If you mess up you need to be held accountable. I strongly support having SROs in schools.”
In a rambling explanation of support, Branson also mentioned that having a diversity of students from different cultures and countries could result in “sex, drugs, trafficking and violence.”
When asked if he was equating immigrant students with crime in schools, Branson said that’s not what he said but that, “We live in America” and that “students have a choice to live within a reason of professionalism.”
When the issue of disparity in discipline in schools between students of color and white students was brought up, Branson said, “I don’t think you’re going to see excessive force if you listen to the officer.”
Cooke echoed Murphy’s sentiments about having additional support staff to help students in schools rather than relying solely on law enforcement officers. Cooke did not give a definitive answer on whether she supports decreasing the number of officers in schools.
“I think that the root of it [is] we have to think about how are SROs meant to be supporting the educators in the building and is that the best way to provide support?” she said. “Are there other ways to support our educators that don’t lead to arrests of Black and Brown children? Maybe more therapists and nurses in every school to support the whole child.”
“I’m going to talk with the stakeholders,” she said. “To figure out how to get the best outcome for the kids…. It’s a conversation we need to have.”
While Lawson, Cooke’s opponent did not post anything about law enforcement in schools, he did share his opinions regarding the racial justice uprisings on June 2. In the post, Lawson, who is Black, expressed frustration with the killing of George Floyd, saying that he has tried to live his life “not as a color.” He wrote on June 2 about his experiences of overt racism as a young teen in Boston during court-ordered desegregation and recalled how he was called the “N word” and rocks were thrown at him.
“I understand and share the pain of protesters here in Greensboro and across the nation,” he wrote. “I welcome peaceful protest…. However, blaming every police officer for the insanity of bad cops is not right or helpful. Nor is burning or wrecking businesses where people’s livelihoods are at stake. My hope going forward is that here in Guilford County and Greensboro we all will take more time to look at each other as men and women as God intended. Instead of looking at each other as colors.”
Looking to the past and moving forward
Branson said some of the things that he’s proudest of that he’s accomplished as a county commissioner are the new renovations and construction in the county like a new animal shelter off of Guilford College Road and a mental-health facility that is being built off Wendover Avenue in Greensboro.
He said if re-elected, he would continue to work to bring jobs to the area like a new Publix in Jamestown and the Amazon distribution center in Kernersville. He also said he would continue to support schools.
“I voted to put the bond referendum out there,” he said. “I know that it’s not what 100 percent what fellow noisemakers would have liked to have seen, but we will get there.”
If elected, Cooke said that she would suggest having a standing joint-facilities committee made up of school board members as well as county commissioners to meet regularly to discuss how to make school repairs. A joint committee was temporarily created last year during the school facilities study, but Cooke said she believes there should be a permanent one.
Murphy said she wants to address the opioid crisis at the county level and facilitate conversations with the local health department and hospitals to create a joint plan. She also said that wants to move towards a “backwards design model” for developing the county budget. A method that is used in education, Murphy describes the model as thinking about what end product is wanted and working backwards to determine what path will lead to the desired outcome.
“We have to ask ourselves, What do we value in our community?” she said. “What do we envision our community being like and what data do we have to support which programs will help us achieve that?”
Murphy also said she wants to conduct disparity studies at the county level. Murphy said she wants to do one to understand the scope of available minority and women-owned businesses across the community to help them leverage purchasing power.