Photo: Mary Beth Murphy speaks during a candidate forum on Sunday. Also pictured (l-r) Carly Cooke, James Upchurch, Fahiym Hanna and Skip Alston.

Democratic candidates for Guilford County Commission signaled broad support for borrowing at least $1 billion to build and repair schools across the county during a forum in Greensboro on Sunday, in contrast to the more conservative figure of about $700 million embraced by the board’s current Republican majority.

Skip Alston, Democratic candidate in District 8

“I’ve already gone on record saying
that I support a $1 billion bond package initially,” said Skip Alston, a
longtime commissioner who is fending off a challenge from Fahiym Hanna in
District 8. “But we do have a $2 billion problem, and I don’t think we can wait
10 years for that other billion to be addressed…. My position would be $1
billion, but to also look at increments of another $500 million within three to
five years, and then another $500 million within the next three to five years.”

A study commissioned by Guilford
County Schools found a total of $1.5 billion in outstanding infrastructure
needs last year, including $800 million in deferred maintenance. The school
district has proposed an investment of $2 billion to rebuild schools across the
district to meet future student enrollment.

Fahiym Hanna, Democratic candidate in District 8

Hanna said if the study found $1.5
billion in needs, “I think we should just do that.”

The candidates spoke during a forum
hosted by Indivisible Guilford County, a progressive group that opposes
President Trump’s agenda. The forum was billed as a “nonpartisan” event, but no
Republican candidates accepted the invitation to participate.

“I would support a bond that was at
least $1 billion for our school,” said Mary Beth Murphy, a Guilford County
Schools teacher who is challenging Republican incumbent Alan Branson in
District 4.

Carly Cooke, a Democrat running in District 5, agreed.

Carly Cooke, Democratic candidate in District 5

“I definitely support a billion
minimum on the ballot in 2020,” said Cooke, a Guilford County Schools parent
who is a member of the parent-teacher association board at Claxton Elementary.
“It is an investment. It’s a big deal. It’s a lot of money, but our schools are
crumbling. I’ve seen mold in a classroom in our school. So I totally support
that, and I agree with what Skip said: We need a plan for the rest.”

Macon Sullivan, Cooke’s opponent in
the Democratic primary, did not attend the forum. Cyndy Hayworth and Troy
Lawson will face each other in the Republican primary. The district is
currently represented by board chair Jeff Phillips, who is not seeking re-election.

James Upchurch, a Democratic
candidate for District 6 in High Point, gave a more cautious response.

“I’m not going to name a dollar
amount, simply because I don’t have control over that,” said Upchurch, who said
he previously taught at Smith High School in Greensboro, but I say whatever it
takes, if it’s $1 billion or $2 billion, whatever it takes so all of our
children have an equal opportunity to be successful in life.”

Jim Davis and Jason Ewing, two
former High Point City Council members, are running in the Republican primary
for District 6. Hank Henning, the current representative, is not seeking re-election.

Funding for school nurses

Candidates expressed support for
funding to ensure that there is a nurse at every school site in Guilford
County.

Mary Beth Murphy, Democratic candidate in District 4

“I’m at one of those schools,
currently teaching where we have a school nurse once a week, if she doesn’t get
called out for training or pulled for something else,” Murphy said. “This past
week our school nurse didn’t make it at all, so students in my school haven’t
had access to a nurse for nearly 10 school days…. We fall very short of meeting
our students’ health needs, both their mental health and their physical health
needs.”

Murphy said the county should strive
towards the goal of a full-time nurse at every school site, but did not address
how to pay for it.

“I completely agree that we need
more school nurses,” Cooke said.

“The school nurses are actually
funded through the public health department, not the schools,” she added, “so
there should be a way that we can work together, combine resources in a way
that can better use the resources that we have, find the money in the budget,
trim the fat, prioritize the safety and health of our children.”

James Upchurch, Democratic candidate in District 6

Like Cooke, Upchurch expressed
support for the proposal while vowing to pay for it by eliminating wasteful
spending.

“I fully support having a nurse at every school,” said Upchurch, who is currently a doctoral student at UNCG studying educational policy. “At the same time, I come from a side of fiscal responsibility and understand it’s going to take money for that to happen. I believe we need to take a strong look at the wasted money that we currently have going to our school when it comes to administration, and things like that.”

Hanna said he agreed that “we need
to get more nurses in schools.” He did not directly address how the county
would pay for the investment, but recommended his CPS Model — short for
“Correct Priority Society” — which he said would help people meet basic needs
and help children “come to school ready to learn.” He added, “The CPS Model
would bring plenty of nurses because I can throw a rock right now and hit an out-of-work
nurse. They could easily work for the school in exchange for their basic
needs.”

Alston said he “totally” supports
the goal.

“I’m an advocate for school nurses
in the time I’ve been on the county commission,” he said. “It’s a must for our kids
because a lot of time our kids do come to school sick, and sometimes they have
to be sent home because they don’t have a nurse that might be able to look at
them.

“It’s about prioritizing, and if we
think that’s a priority for our kids to have a school nurse, then we should go
ahead and fund it,” he added. “The county commissioners can do that separately
in our budget. And every year I try to fight for more funding for nurses in our
schools, and I’ll continue to do that.”

Disparity study

With varying degrees of commitment,
candidates said they would support a disparity study to determine what
percentage of government contracts go to minority and women-owned businesses.
Gerry McCants, one of the three moderators, raised the question, noting that a
recent disparity study completed by the city of Greensboro found that out of
roughly $900 million in contracting to private companies, less than 3 percent
went to minority-owned businesses. The Greensboro Business League, co-chaired
by McCants, has urged the city of Greensboro to increase contracting to
businesses owned by people of color.

The city of Greensboro has completed
four disparity studies since 1996, compared to none by Guilford County.

Murphy and Cooke expressed
unequivocal support for commissioning a disparity study, with the former saying
“definitely” and the later saying “for sure.”

Upchurch expressed conditional
support.

“I believe in equality,” he said.
“If the MWBE community thinks that they’re not being awarded contracts at the same
rate as other businesses, then that’s something we need to take a serious look
at.” Asked after the forum to clarify whether his answer was a “yes” or a
“maybe,” Upchurch said, “100 percent support.” But then he added that he would
want to hear the request from an array of minority-business stakeholders, and
“not just one person.” He said, “It would be contingent on meeting with these
businesses.”

Hanna said, “I would say I agree
with my other candidates here about the MWAs [sic]. Yes, we do need to have
more minorities working with these contractors.”

Alston said he’s going to request that
$300,000 be set aside in the next budget to fund a disparity study.

“With majority Republican control,
we don’t know if it’s gonna happen or not,” he said. “But we will be pushing
for it. We’re gonna let ’em vote against it if they want to do that. If we
really want to be fair, you have to have a disparity study to make sure that
the numbers are there and the capacity is there. So, when we say that
African-American contractors — that’s plumbers, HVAC contractors, carpenters —
that they are out there, and they’re not getting the services, we’ll have that
disparity study in order to support that.”

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