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Foxx co-sponsors federal bill to restore IFB Solutions' VA optical contracts

As the last of three IFB Solutions Inc. federal optical contracts have expired, U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx has co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to reinstate the work.

Foxx, R-N.C., submitted H.R. 4920 on Wednesday.

A brief description says the bill would “reform laws for contracts with the Department of Veterans Affairs so that Ability One contracts held prior to 2006 continue to be eligible for renewal.”

For decades, IFB’s VA contracts have come through the act known as AbilityOne, passed by Congress in the 1930s, that gives federal government preference to companies that employ the blind or severely disabled.

IFB has been providing prescription eyewear to the VA since the late 1990s. The Winston-Salem company is the largest employer of the blind in the United States with about 1,000 employees overall and 556 locally.

In September, a federal judge denied a stay request that would have allowed IFB to keep one of its three optical contracts, leaving 47 workers without jobs.

The other contracts expired Sept. 13 and Sept. 30, affecting an additional 90 employees. Of the overall 137 jobs, 76 were held by employees who are blind and 15 by veterans.

“Our free, prosperous nation enables opportunities for people of all abilities to work, and Congress has demonstrated its intent in past legislation to support such opportunities through the Ability One program,” Foxx said in a statement.

“Recently, it has become clear that those laws are in serious need of clarification.”

Dan Kelly, IFB’s chief operating officer, said IFB worked through the orders that were transmitted at the end of all three contracts.

“All of our VA work is now complete,” he said.

“The VA contract terminations was a devastating blow to our organization and employee community. While some of our optical employees found work in other areas of our organization, many did not and face difficult challenges in securing other jobs.

“This legislation will help ensure those individuals continue to have opportunities to work and lead independent lives. We hope Congress will move quickly on this legislation before any more VA contracts with AbilityOne agencies are terminated and additional jobs lost.”

Foxx sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie asking him to personally review the status of IFB’s federal contracts. Foxx said her letter has not been acknowledged.

A previous letter sent to the VA was endorsed by 33 U.S. House and Senate members, including Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C.

“I will keep pushing for its passage until these true models of perseverance can rest more assured of their jobs,” Foxx said.

The optical work for the VA means $15.4 million in annual revenue for the nonprofit group, formerly known as Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind Inc. That represents nearly 20% of IFB’s total revenue.

“We believe over time we will be able to generate other revenue sources from new vendors, mining more the ones we have now and creating new opportunities, like the retail store,” said David Horton, IFB’s president and chief executive.

Four legal cases have been filed in connection with the battle for the VA contracts.

One of the cases involves the VA as the defendant — with IFB joining as an intervenor — and the rival company PDS Consultants Inc. of Sparta, N.J., as the plaintiff.

PDS has provided visual products to the VA since 1998. PDS’s legal claim has been that businesses owned by disabled veterans should have priority over those from AbilityOne, based on a recent U.S. Supreme Court interpretation of the Veterans Benefits Act of 2006.

That act is also known as Veterans First legislation, one of the ways Congress recognizes and repays disabled veterans for their military service.

The VA said in an August statement that “per the federal laws set by Congress, the VA limits competition for contracts to service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses in certain circumstances.”

“This is one of those circumstances. This concept was recently affirmed by the Supreme Court in a ruling that Congress also supported in an amicus brief.”

Dan Kelly, IFB’s chief operating officer, said IFB and other AbilityOne nonprofits around the country “have worked hard over many years to ensure that the AbilityOne program and the Veterans First Contracting program co-exist and serve their important constituencies.”

IFB is petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to review the federal appeals court ruling from October 2018.

Kelly said the U.S. Justice Department has requested, and been granted, another extension in filing their brief to Dec. 9.

“The Supreme Court, as its discretion, will let us know after Dec. 9 whether they will hear our case or not — but certainly we hope to hear late December or January,” Kelly said.

If it does, it likely could take the court 18 to 24 months for a decision.

Economic measures show area gain, analyst says

City and regional officials are touting strong job growth numbers for metropolitan Winston-Salem as evidence for optimism about local economic prospects.

The Winston-Salem area posted higher employment growth last summer than most of the other large metropolitan areas in North Carolina, and beat the growth rates in other cities of similar size nationwide, according to figures from the national Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Metropolitan Winston-Salem had a 3.1% growth in non-farm employment between August of 2018 and August of 2019. That’s a growth rate higher than Charlotte (2.3%), Raleigh (1.7%), or even Greenville, S.C. (1.7%), one of the cities that local leaders use in their comparison charts.

“It is impossible to know what future growth will be, but Winston-Salem has been making investments to reposition the economy over the past few years, and it is reasonable to expect and hope that this is the early sign that the future is bright,” said Ted Abernathy, an economic development consultant.

Abernathy was the key speaker in a State of the Region presentation held recently by the Piedmont Triad Partnership, a group that promotes regional growth. Abernathy is the managing partner of Economic Leadership LLC, a consulting firm.

Abernathy said white collar jobs such as business and professional services and health and education services were big drivers of the strong 12-month growth numbers. Another strong area of growth was in leisure and hospitality jobs, Abernathy said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, professional and business service jobs were up 5.7% here over the 12-month period, while education and health jobs increased 4.2%. Leisure and hospitality jobs were up 5.8% during the period.

While construction jobs were a smaller part of the overall local job mix, those jobs were up 5.5% for the 12-month period.

Preliminary job numbers for September, while subject to adjustment as more data comes in, do suggest that the job growth trend was continuing into the fall. Non-farm employment was up 3.3% in preliminary numbers, led by a whopping 9.5% increase in leisure and hospitality jobs over the previous September.

“The one caveat is that we all need the national economy to avoid a recession anytime soon,” Abernathy said.

Citing statistics from the N.C. Department of Commerce, Abernathy said Forsyth County led the other counties of the Triad in employment growth in absolute numbers for the year ending in August 2019.

Those statistics showed Forsyth County adding almost 7,100 jobs during a period when Guilford County added only 4,800 jobs and Davidson County almost 3,000 jobs.

Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said the job numbers show the city’s effort to improve the local economy is working. Joines and city officials issued a news release based on the Economic Leadership presentation that cited a two-year growth rate for metro Winston-Salem of 3.9% from August 2017 to August 2019.

In North Carolina as a whole, non-farm job growth was up 2.3% from September 2018 to September 2019.

Meanwhile, job creation in metro Winston-Salem hasn’t always been followed by a drop in the unemployment rate. In August, the unemployment rate was 4.2%, up from 3.9% the previous August.

“Employment can go up, but if additional people join the labor force the unemployment rate can also rise,” Abernathy said.

Also, people who work in metro Winston-Salem can live literally anywhere, so an increase in the number of jobs doesn’t necessarily translate into a lower jobless rate.

That said, the preliminary September jobless rate for the metro Winston-Salem area stood at 3.3%, the same as for the same month in 2018.

The Economic Leadership presentation to the Piedmont Triad Partnership said the Triad has about 9.3% of the state’s jobs in the technology sector, but that growth in that sector has been lagging compared to the state as a whole.

While technology jobs increased by 1% in the Triad from 2012 to 2017, during the same period, the number of technology jobs in the state has increased 17%.

The region also has work to do in attracting talent, according to Abernathy.

When Economic Leadership put together an index of places based on their ability to attract brainy talent, the Triad was nowhere on the list: Raleigh was in third place, Charlotte was in fifth, and Durham was in 15th place.

Still, Abernathy said the Triad metro areas have some advantages in their favor, with lower housing and construction costs, and less traffic congestion.

On the other hand, the region lags behind its other metro competitors in educational attainment, income levels and ability to attract millennials.

Energetic, relentless and driven: Reagan High math teacher wins national award

Wendy Bartlett, a math teacher at Reagan High School in Pfafftown, says she will do what it takes to make sure her students learn.

“I try to create the lesson so that it makes it easier for them to understand,” said Bartlett. “I don’t know why I’m so driven, but it’s just always been me. If it’s not going to be great, I don’t want to do it. I like things to be done right and done well.”

She said she feels blessed to be a teacher.

“Teaching is a calling, and I feel like I get to do what I was put on earth to do every day, so that’s kind of fun.”

In mid-October Bartlett, along with three other North Carolina teachers, joined teachers from across the country in Washington to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

The PAEMST is the highest honor bestowed by the federal government specifically for K-12 mathematics and science teaching. The award comes with a certificate signed by the president of the United States and a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation.

“You’re excited because it’s an honor and an affirmation of the hard work that you’ve done for so many years,” Bartlett said. “But I also recognize that there’s so many great teachers out there, so I’m humbled as well.”

Energetic and relentless

Students in Bartlett’s math classes at Reagan High School talked about how excited they are about her national award.

“It was really nice to hear that someone who has been a great help for me was recognized for her hard work,” said Abby Wyss, one of Bartlett’s Honors Math 2 students.

Abby said that Bartlett has a lot of energy and will joke with students.

“She always has a ton of energy, which makes class exciting,” Wyss said. “Math isn’t always, like, the most exciting thing, but she finds a way to make it really exciting.”

Semaj Turner, a student in Bartlett’s Math 1 class, said he is proud of his teacher.

“She shows that she really cares about us,” Turner said. “I just see her as a family member. …. She treats us like we are her kids. I’m really happy for her.”

Turner considers it a small world that Bartlett is his teacher.

“Years ago, she taught my mom and years later she teaches me,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

Brad Royal, the principal of Reagan High School, described Bartlett as someone who is “absolutely relentless.”

“I say that because she has this drive that every child is going to learn the material and that they are going to achieve not just at an OK level, or an average level, but they are going to surpass all expectations,” Royal said. “She holds this very high bar for every kid, and she won’t lower it. The cool thing is she helps to get to that place, to help get you to where the bar is.”

For Bartlett to be a recipient of the PAEMST award, Royal said, is outstanding and an honor for her, her family, Reagan High and the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system.

He also said she is deserving of the award.

“We could sit here and talk a lot about her mathematical abilities and the way she teaches math, but it’s also the love and the compassion and the passion she has for every single child in her classroom,” Royal said. “You put those two things together and you have a recipe for amazing success.”

More about Bartlett

Bartlett, 44, grew up in Fenwick Island, Del. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Wake Forest University, a master’s of education in math education from UNC Charlotte, and her National Board Certification in mathematics/adolescent and young adulthood.

She is in her 23rd year as a teacher. She joined Reagan High four years ago and previously worked 19 years at Parkland High School.

Other awards Bartlett has received are the Marcellus Waddill Excellence in Teaching Award from Wake Forest University, the Career Award in Science and Mathematics Teaching from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and the Outstanding Secondary Mathematics Teacher for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

She is married to Tim Bartlett and has two children, Jacob Wuwert, 18, a senior at Reagan, and Jessi Kate Bartlett, 13, an eighth-grade student at Meadowlark Middle School.

When asked about the energy that her students praise her for, Bartlett laughed.

“I drink a lot of coffee,” she said.

She added that she runs to stay healthy and keep her energy up.

“I have a wonderful group of running friends,” Bartlett said. “We get up at 4:45 a.m. and we meet three days a week.”

Bartlett and her friends also run on the weekends and participate in half marathons twice a year.

Bartlett is also a band mom. Both her children are in the Reagan High School Band of Raiders Marching Band. Her son is a drum major and her daughter plays a mellophone.

Embracing technology

Bartlett said that she wants her students to own their learning, to be in charge of what they learn because she can’t make them learn.

But she said that part of her job is to “facilitate teaching them how to learn.”

“Just because I taught it doesn’t mean they know it,” she said. “How can we make sure they know it together?”

She said she always does test corrections, allowing students to come back and look at a test.

“We have this unit,” Bartlett said. “What did you learn? If you didn’t learn it, then we need to go back and figure out why and what you didn’t understand at the time of the test.”

Bartlett has embraced technology in her classroom.

She likes to use desmos.com, a collection of digital activities that are free for teachers to use in their classrooms. On Friday, in her Math 1 class, students were writing the equation of a line that would land a plane on a runway.

Bartlett knows firsthand how smartphones, which she calls students’ best friend, can sometimes be the bane of a teacher’s existence.

But she is using the device to engage and communicate with her students through a messaging app called Remind.

“Because I teach them every other day, it’s a way for them to communicate with me since I don’t see them every day,” Bartlett said.

She uses several other technologies for informative assessment, including the Nearpod, Quizizz and Quizlet live websites.

“They are tools for formative assessment so that I can gather data from the students to figure out what they know,” Bartlett said. “I use that to drive instruction, to figure out where I need to go — whether the students have it or I need to stay where I am and continue to practice that.”

She said that the grading component is tough for her.

“If I can use technology to get a sense of what my kids understand and know so that I can move on, that’s important to me, because I can’t always get the feedback to them quickly.”

She said that she cares about her students, and tries to get to know them and talk to them one-on-one.

She praises them if they have worked hard but gives them a hard time if they are not doing what they need to do.

The trip

The trip to Washington occurred Oct. 16-18, and Bartlett got to take her husband and children along. Her parents, Jeff and Paula Mumford of Delaware, were also there.

Although Bartlett did not get to meet President Donald Trump, she was able to tour the White House and get pictures.

Most of her trip consisted of conference meetings.

She said she and the other award winners from across the country met with a panel from the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy about how to help implement the Federal STEM Education 5-year Strategic Plan.

STEM means science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Bartlett said: “It was neat to see at the federal level what they are trying to do to support STEM education and getting kids into STEM. The report was interesting to read in that they recognize that our country needs to stay competitive in the STEM field if we are going to continue to be successful on an international level. They recognize that it starts with the education that our kids receive.”