by Jordan Green

At least one seat in urban District 1 is up for grabs as political retirements on the Winston-Salem Forsyth County School Board prompts a game of musical chairs.

The retirement of four Republicans school board members in suburban District 2 ensures that almost half of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board will be new to the job after the general election in November.

The ripple effect of the four retirements creates an opportunity for at least one new contender in urban, Democratic-leaning District 1, which covers much of Winston-Salem.

Chair Jane Goins and the three other Republican members who are stepping down — Buddy Collins, Marilyn Parker and Jill Tackabery — range from conservative to moderate. Irene May and Jeannie Metcalf, two of the most conservative Republican members, currently serve at large. The vacancies gave them an opportunity to file in District 2, where they’ll face a friendlier electorate. The domino effect also provides an opening for Republican John Davenport Jr. to run at large rather than run the gauntlet of an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate.

Politics in Forsyth County is typically played for maximum partisan advantage, even when it makes for strange and unseemly outcomes.

The backstory in this year’s contest for District 1, which essentially ensures two seats for African Americans on the otherwise conservative nine-member board, is that voters elected Geneva Brown and Victor Johnson Jr. in 2010 under a nonpartisan election plan. Subsequently, then-state Rep. Dale Folwell shepherded a bill through the General Assembly to convert Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board elections to a partisan system. When Brown retired in the middle of her term, one might have expected that the county Democrats would have the opportunity to appoint one of their own to the newly partisan board, but instead the Republican majority appointed Davenport, a black Republican, to the seat.

That worked for a while, but has proven to be politically untenable over the long run.

“I am a Republican; District 1 is pretty much drawn as a safe Democratic district,” said Davenport, stating the obvious.

“There are people who support me in District 1, and they’ll still be able to support me at large,” said Davenport, who owns an engineering firm located in the Chatham Building on West Fourth Street in downtown Winston-Salem. “I feel like my appeal stretches throughout the county. I’m part of the business community, including the chamber of commerce and many other organizations that affect the whole county. It opens up the opportunity to have another minority on the board.”

Victor Johnson Jr., who currently represents District 1 with Davenport, said he considered retiring, but decided he wanted to serve again to provide some stability as the board undergoes a transition. Johnson was first elected to the school board in 1997, but he has a long history of community leadership and involvement in education. He taught at Carver High School and, in 1960 as a senior at Winston-Salem Teachers College, helped launch the first lunch-counter sit-in in Winston-Salem, only seven days after the more famous action in neighboring Greensboro.

Among Johnson’s proudest accomplishments is persuading his colleagues to save his alma mater, Atkins High School, which some members of the board wanted to close.

Johnson cast the deciding vote in January to end debate on a resolution for the school board to join a lawsuit against state legislation passed to provide vouchers to low-income students to attend private schools. Johnson said state Rep. Ed Hanes Jr. (D-Forsyth), one of his former students and an outspoken supporter of vouchers, told him “we as minorities need to get on the bandwagon” before the vote. While expressing ambivalence about vouchers in an interview, Johnson said it’s only fair that low-income parents have the same opportunities as more affluent parents, who can transfer their children into charter schools or home-schooling.

Three other Democrats are also running for the two District 1 seats on the board. Malishai Woodbury and Chenita Barber Johnson ran unsuccessfully respectively at large and in District 1 in 2010. Deanna Taylor, the wife of Winston-Salem City Councilman James Taylor Jr., put her name forward for appointment to replace Geneva Brown in 2011, but lost to Davenport.

Victor Johnson Jr. said part of the reason he is seeking another term is because he wants to groom a successor. He is backing Woodbury, also a former student at Carver High School.

“I hope I will be able to get elected, and Ms. Woodbury because she’s a product of this community,” Johnson said. “When you’re a product of a community you have more to put into it. You’re not just in it to be in it; you’re really able to give back.”

Woodbury and Taylor, both educators, sounded similar themes in interviews with Triad City Beat. Chenita Johnson could not be reached for this story.

A full-time teacher in neighboring Guilford County Schools and an adjunct history professor at NC A&T University, Woodbury is running on a three-point platform. She wants the school district to improve the quality of education and close the racial achievement gap, empower teachers to be more vocal and take greater leadership roles, and engage more with grassroots community groups such as the Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity and Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods.

A teacher assistant at Forest Park Elementary, Taylor wants to focus on building stronger lines of communication between the school district and parents, recruiting quality teachers and giving them a voice, and ensuring that educational resources are distributed equitably.

“I would love to work on equity and fairness in our schools, making sure all of our students are getting all of the resources they need and on working on diversity in our schools,” Taylor said. “A lot of our schools are getting less populated and less diverse.”

Taylor expressed dissatisfaction with the current student assignment plan, known as “School Choice.”

“Our statistics show that the schools that are more diverse with both high and low income and multiracial student bodies have higher test scores,” she said.

Both candidates indicated they are less than enthused about the Republican-dominated General Assembly’s radical overhaul of public education, with Taylor opposing the dismantling of teacher tenure and Woodbury decrying stagnant pay for veteran teachers.

But Woodbury said if the school board is poised for a change of course, it will have more to do with a new leadership having more direct experience in education than political ideology.

“The two candidates that I met on the campaign trail from District 2 have strong educational backgrounds,” Woodbury said. “Even if we have different political ideas we are all educators. Mr. Johnson, who is an incumbent, he was my teacher at Carver High School. Even if I don’t agree with him on some issues, I was his student and he was my teacher. There will be a stronger commonality than there was before.”

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