Ashley Elementary was on a list of schools slated for replacement in 2015 under a proposed bond. The project was dropped from the list before the bond package went before Forsyth County voters in November 2016. Then students and teachers started getting sick.

Students at Ashley Elementary returned to school on Monday to a facility with a new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system.

With 84.2 percent of its students classified as “economically disadvantaged,” the school east-side school is one of the poorest in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, and it’s the lowest performing school in the district.

Earlier this month, the school district and its board found itself on the receiving end of a federal complaint alleging violation of the students’ civil rights due to the district’s handling of complaints from parents and staff about mold, water leaks and poor indoor air quality. A Title VI complaint filed with the Office of Civil Rights at the US Department of Justice by the Durham-based Southern Coalition of Social Justice on behalf of the Action4Ashley Coalition asks for a federal investigation and order for a federal order compelling the school district to remedy the situation.

Dana Caudill Jones, the board chair, said she couldn’t comment on the specific claim of discrimination against the students at Ashley Elementary considering the legal ramifications of the complaint, but she argued that school leaders have responded appropriately to the health concerns at the school.

“In the last school year, we held three different meetings with parents,” Jones said. “After we started planning to remediate the air handling at the school, we spent over $1.4 million. When we heard from the parents, they wanted the school to stay open. They told us they wanted the work done well. All the comments we’ve heard from the parents have been positive since we completed the work.”

The complaint anticipated Jones’ response. “The district argues that they have addressed the issue by allocating funds to repair the HVAC system,” it states. “However, the repairs neither rectify past harms nor address the underlying excessive moisture and poor facility conditions that will continue to plague the Ashley school community until they are in a new building.”

The civil rights complaint contrasts the district’s handling of the health concerns at Ashley Elementary, which is 94.2 percent non-white, with its response to concerns about groundwater contamination and air quality at Hanes and Lowrance Middle Schools in January 2015. The board voted 7-2 to close Hanes-Lowrance before a consulting company completed testing to determine if a chemical in the ground water created significant health risks. The civil rights complaint cites the cost of relocating the students as $3- to $4 million.

“Notably, both Hanes and Lowrance had a significantly higher population of white students than Ashley (44 percent white and 28 percent white compared to 5.8 percent white),” the complaint argues. “As a result, the parents and advocates urging the board to act during the Hanes-Lowrance situation were predominantly white, while the parents, teachers and advocates advocating for action in the Ashley crisis are black. Relatedly, the ‘wait-and-see’ attitude exhibited by WSFCS in regards to concerns about Ashley is a distinct departure from the urgency shown in 2015 for the students at Hanes and Lowrance Middle Schools.”

The complaint filed by the Action4Ashley Coalition quotes Jones as saying after the firm Mid-Atlantic determined that air samples at Hanes-Lowrance indicated there was no immediate risk to students: “I still think it was the right decision. When you have students, children… you do what’s right. You err on the side of caution.”

Jones said on Tuesday that she stands behind her statement, and believes it’s also consistent with the board’s response to health concerns at Ashley Elementary.

“I believe we’re doing what’s right,” she said. “Immediately when these concerns were brought to this board, this board said, ‘Let’s get in there and figure out what’s going on.’ Immediately, we said, ‘Let’s make the investment that’s required to make this school safe.’ Those same words that I said about Hanes-Lowrance apply to Ashley. I care about all of our children.”

The message Jones said she’s received about Ashley parents wanting to keep their children in the school contrasts with the order the complainants are seeking from the Office of Civil Rights at the US Department of Education. The complainants want the district to build a new facility for the students “as soon as practicable.” Until the new facility is built, the complainants are asking the district to give students and staff who are at risk or experiencing symptoms of poor indoor quality the opportunity to transfer to a different school.

According to the complaint, the Ashley school building was built in the 1960s, and “persistent moisture issues leading to mold growth and poor air quality… have led to health issues for students and staff including chronic sinus infections, headaches/migraines, itchy eyes, upper respiratory issues, and aggravation of existing allergies.”

According to the complaint, a group of teachers began complaining about facility conditions to school officials in August 2017, and in response the district hired an environmental consultant to conduct limited testing. The district also reportedly hired a contractor to clean the HVAC units, but staff and students continued to experience symptoms. As a result of the continuing complaints, the district hired a second consultant, who reportedly found “extensive visible mold growth” in the HVAC system. As a result, the school board approved the replacement of the HVAC system in May 2018.

Ashley Elementary had initially been slated for replacement in the most recent bond election, in November 2016. During a meeting with urban community leaders in October 2015, school leaders responded positively to one recommendation in particular that was put forward by the coalition: To close Ashley Elementary and rebuild at a new location.

“We’re working on a redevelopment plan that the city [of Winston-Salem] is looking at as part of putting a new Ashley into that, that would also include daycare, pre-K, K-5 and a health center,” Assistant Superintendent Darrell Walker told community leaders at the time.

Superintendent Beverly Emory added: “That’s what we saw in your recommendations that we were like, ‘Yay.’ That’s where our minds are at, and it was nice to be validated by the community and neighborhood.”

By the spring of 2016, the proposed bond package had been winnowed from $552.5 million to $325.8 million, and replacement of Ashley Elementary was no longer on the list of projects.

The bond package approved by voters in November 2016 included replacement of Brunson Elementary, a high-performing school with a comparatively low number of economically disadvantaged students. But criticism from the Community School Bond Coalition — which included the Winston-Salem NAACP, New South Community Coalition and the Big 4 Alumni Association — was relatively muted after Ashley was dropped from the bond list. Partial replacement of Konnoak Elementary — a $19.0-million project supported by coalition members on the south side of the city — remained on the list.

Explaining the decision to drop Ashley Elementary from the list, then-Chief of Staff Theo Helm said in early 2016: “That was something in our long-range plan that the board felt like all the pieces that would need to happen wouldn’t fall into place for it to happen in this construction cycle.”

Dana Caudill Jones, the board chair, said on Tuesday that funding in the most recent bond cycle to design a new facility for Ashley puts the school at the front of the line for replacement in the next bond referendum.

“That ensures that right out of the gate it will be ready, so in the next bond cycle it will be shovel-ready, like Konnoak Elementary was during the last bond cycle,” Jones said.

Staff is again in the midst of negotiations to acquire property for a new school for Ashley students.

“We’re working with a couple other government entities around a particular property,” Walker said. “We have the ability to purchase it. Some of the land is tied up around grant funding and housing.”

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