A candidate forum hosted by a progressive group in a conservative part of the county mostly draws challengers.

The Coalition for Equity in Public Education formed in 2015 to promote urban school investment in the run-up to the school bond that went before Forsyth County voters the following year, co-moderator Carolyn Highsmith explained to the audience at Clemmons Public Library on Monday.

The citizen group’s base lies in Democrat-learning District 1, which covers much of Winston-Salem. With two incumbents in District 1 retiring, voters effectively selected new representation during the Democratic primary in May. Democrats Malishai Woodbury and Barbara Hanes Burke are running unopposed in the general election.

So by hosting a forum for at-large and suburban District 2 candidates in Clemmons, the coalition essentially took its progressive agenda to the governing board’s conservative power center. The four seats allocated to District 2 are typically a lock for Republican candidates, and Republicans also hold two out of the three at-large seats. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise that challengers — who are more likely to need exposure — predominated at the forum, while incumbents — who might prefer to avoid uncomfortable questions — were largely absent.

The list of absented incumbents included Board Chair Dana Caudill Jones and Lori Goins Clark, both Republicans in District 2; Republican Vice Chair Robert Barr and Democrat Elisabeth Motsinger, both at-large members. Democrat Deanna Kaplan, who is also running at large, was the only challenger who was a no-show.

For Andrea Pace Bramer, a southeast Winston-Salem parent and one of the three Democrats on the ballot for the three at-large seats, the absences represented a deeper disconnect.

“I think it’s important that we flip the board,” Bramer said. “They’re not here. When we talk to them, they don’t listen.”

The toughest call came when the candidates were asked to take a position on the district’s School Choice assignment plan. Like many school assignment plans adopted around the country after the end of court-ordered bussing in the late 1980s and ’90s, School Choice reverted to neighborhood schools with some allowance for choice within zones. The moderators drew on New York Times reporter and MacArthur Genius Grant Fellow Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Oct. 2 “Color of Education” speech at Duke University to frame a question about how the district should go about “creating spaces where children truly meet as equals.”

The two Democratic challengers in District 2, Marilynn Baker of Kernersville and Rebecca Nussbaum of Winston-Salem, both generally embraced overhauling the school assignment plan in some fashion.

“School Choice has been behind the re-segregation of our schools,” Baker said. “It is broken and it needs to be fixed.” Baker’s comments on addressing the concentrations of poverty and socioeconomic imbalances between schools focused on increasing overall funding.

Nussbaum counseled caution.

“This is an incredibly complicated and complex issue,” she said. “I would hate to see a reactive push.” She said she would like to see a county-wide effort similar to Mayor Allen Joines’ Winston-Salem Poverty Thought Force to muster “a joint wisdom, a community wisdom to solve this problem.”

Bramer said it’s time for the school board to face a difficult reckoning.

“When you talk about bussing, people only seem to have a problem with one way,” she said. “They don’t mind us bussing our kids to their schools; they just don’t want to bus their kids to our schools. Yes, people are going to be angry.” Bramer noted that the district faces a Title VI complaint based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 over health and maintenance issues at Ashley Elementary, the lowest performing school in the state. She warned that the district could potentially end up in federal receivership, adding that elected leaders “need to show up and make some hard decisions.”

Lida Calvert-Hayes, the only Republican incumbent in District 2 who attended the forum, acknowledged the persistence of inequality in the district, noting the contrast between wealthy schools with beautiful facilities and poor ones where many of the students come to school hungry.

“To be honest, it does break my heart,” she said. “I am for School Choice.

“I also look at the kids who don’t have choice,” Calvert-Hayes continued. “They don’t have transportation. Is that choice? No, it’s not. We need to sit down and find a way for every child to have opportunity. It’s not happening now.”

Leah Crowley, a Winston-Salem Republican who defeated incumbent David Singletary in the primary, said she wants to improve magnet schools to make School Choice work better.

“I do think when parents have choice, there’s more buy-in,” she said. “When you have neighborhood schools, it’s easier for kids to get involved in after-school activities.”

Tim Brooker of Winston-Salem, one of the Republican challengers for at large, said he supports the current plan.

“I am in favor of School Choice,” he said. “As a parent, it’s imperative to get the best situation for your child. We shouldn’t have a thought process of punishing the successful schools.”

Jim Smith, another Winston-Salem Republican in the at-large race, argued that before the district dismantles School Choice, leaders should study other school systems to see what has worked.

Two candidates — Crowley and Calvert — indicated they would support the use of public funds to pay for a new stadium at Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem.

“I’m absolutely in support of this project,” Crowley said. “This is an access and equity issue.” She said almost half of the students at the historic high school qualify for free and reduced lunch, and about 60 percent are non-white.

“To take part in after-school activities, the children have to pay participation fees, or they have to have transportation,” she said. “Most of the time they don’t participate. It really bothers me that our school teams don’t reflect the school population. It kills me that those kids are left out.”

Baker said school-board members need to be prepared to fight for more state funding overall.

“We need more nurses and social workers,” she said. “By golly, we need history textbooks that are less than 13 years old. We need school-board members that are willing to stand up to Raleigh.”

Some candidates volunteered that they would ask the county commission for more money to fund teacher pay supplements — something the current board has been faulted for not doing.

“I would ask,” Brooker said. “I wouldn’t worry about the sustainability.”

Smith said he would want to ensure that there was adequate funding to pay for the supplement year after year.

Calvert said she recently attended a county commission meeting, and overcame her trepidation to ask the board for additional funds.

“I did get off the floor,” she said. “It takes a lot of guts to do that, folks.”

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