#PLTS: Hashtag activism — #JustAsk

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Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Beverly Emory responded to criticism on Sept. 18 with a video and a hashtag: #JustAskMe. (screengrab)

Direct action — and sometimes a pointed hashtag — gets the goods.

Tripp Jeffers, a history teacher at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools and former president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators posted a highlight video of two county commissioners practically begging Superintendent Beverly Emory to ask the county for funding to pay for teacher-supplement pay. Emory responded in a handful of ways that all conveyed that she didn’t want to come across as demanding or ungrateful for a school bond that voters approved.

Understand that public schools don’t have any independent taxing authority; the school district’s operating budget comes from funds provided by some combination of county, state and federal government. The teacher-supplement pay comes from county government.

The full 40-minute video of Emory’s exchange with the commissioners, which is posted on the county government website, is just as damning as the nine-minute highlight reel put together by Jeffers.

Forsyth County ranks 26th in teacher-supplement pay. When you consider that Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools is the fourth largest system in the state, it doesn’t look good. Teachers in Cumberland, Buncombe and even Alamance County make more. Looking at the five largest systems, the pay isn’t even close. Commissioner Everette Witherspoon said during the May 10 discussion that teacher-supplement pay averages $5,000 in Wake County, $4,000 in Mecklenburg County, $3,800 in Durham, and $3,600 in Guilford. Forsyth County? About $1,700.

“I hope the school board actually asks for more money to deal with the supplement issue because we are behind,” Witherspoon told Emory.

In response, Emory emphasized that the school district was presenting a balanced budget to the county commission that did not include money for a supplement. She did offer that the school district has a task force to explore options for funding a supplement in the future, and would welcome dialogue with the county commission.

Witherspoon reiterated: “When you talk about teacher supplements, hopefully you will come back and just talk to the board about your plan for the increase in supplements, and ask this board for the money.” He noted that this is the most progressive county commission he’s seen in the past seven years, adding that the economy is fairly good.

“If you’re not going to do it now, the school board is not going to do it now, the question is, when are you gonna do it?” he asked. “What this county has done with the supplement funding is abysmal.”

Then he counted the votes on the seven-member board. Don Martin is a former superintendent. Check. Fleming El-Amin is a retired teacher. Check. Ted Kaplan is a Democrat running for re-election. Check.

Still, Emory resisted.

“We’ve tried to be grateful for what you give, and live within it,” she said. “It’s not will. I love our teachers. It’s not my style. I’m not gonna come here and say, ‘I need $20 million.’ This is not Charlotte, and it’s not Wake. If we could continue this conversation and you want to do that…. I would very much, I believe our board has said this is a priority as well as our staff want to do that.”

Martin, who has stood in Emory’s shoes before as a former superintendent, tried to help out.

“I think what Commissioner Witherspoon is saying is that you need to do the asking,” he said. “We’re not going to be asking you about it. You need to be the one asking us with a proposal or an idea or whatever…. Ask.”

As a slight modification, a hashtag was born: #JustAsk.

Emory responded with a video of her own on Sept. 18 — and a hashtag of her own: #JustAskMe.

“What I’ve learned here when I reflect, what is the lesson in this for me is that I need to do a better job of communicating with you,” Emory told teachers in the video. “Often I assume that it’s my role to keep these issues off your back while you’re doing the important work of our district in our classroom, but I can do better.”

In other words, come talk to me before you start agitating.

Emory said she’s continued to work behind the scenes with county leaders since the May 10 meeting. She told teachers that a future teacher-pay supplement could be funded through a quarter-cent sales tax that’s on the ballot in November. In the meantime, the superintendent and the school board threw in a one-time $300 bonus for teachers in the annual budget that was approved on Tuesday night.

The bonus hasn’t mollified Emory’s critics.

In a conversation with Witherspoon that was streamed on Triad City Beat’s Facebook page on Tuesday, the Rev. Alvin Carlisle, president of the Winston-Salem NAACP, said, “I’m gonna call it a payoff. To me, [it’s], ‘I was caught being wrong. I was caught not fighting for my teachers, so perhaps if I just give them this small supplement’ — to me it’s very offensive.”

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