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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