The Forsyth County Board of Elections hammered out a compromise plan on Monday that returns early voting to the campus of Winston-Salem State University for the first time since 2010.
By a unanimous vote, the three Democrats and two Republicans on the five-member board approved a plan that calls for 11 early-voting sites during early voting before the March 3 primary.
Democrats on the elections board made it clear from the outset that they would vote for no plan that didn’t include early voting at WSSU.
Although Democrats also wanted early voting at the Miller Park Community Center, in the end they dropped that plea, and backed off as well from having any early voting on a Sunday.
“We almost got everything we wanted,” said Susan Campbell, the Democrat chairing the five-member board, when the meeting was over.
When Republicans held a majority on the board, they had nixed early voting at WSSU because of complaints that Democrats had engaged in on-campus electioneering at the historically-black university.
“It is big,” Campbell said, referring to the impact of getting back the WSSU polling place at the Anderson Center on campus. “They have been asking for eight years.”
A number of speakers rose during the election board’s public comment period to ask for early voting at WSSU, along with Sunday voting. One speaker, Heather MacKenzie, said that students on a college campus have enough to deal with keeping up with their studies.
“The last thing they need to think about is how they are going to get to the polls,” she said.
GOP elections board member Stuart Russell had signaled last week that he was willing to back an early-voting site at WSSU if the Democrats made concessions as well.
There was no controversy over most of the sites approved by the panel. But with attention focused on getting to 11 sites, the question came down to which ones would be left out after WSSU made the cut.
The Democratic concession turned out to be the Miller Park site, which Democrats initially proposed on Monday because of large numbers who have taken part in early voting there.
Russell at one point suggested Harper Hill Commons as an early voting site — a location in more Republican-leaning territory — but it turned out that there was no immediate prospect of getting a site there: Elections officials said their attempts to contact the shopping center management had not borne fruit.
Democratic elections board member Catherine Jourdan proposed adding Miller Park and dropping Polo Park, before withdrawing her motion.
Jourdan promised that early voting at Miller Park would be back up for discussion next year, when the elections board has to decide on where early-voting sites will be during the general election.
People in the audience, who had spoken mostly in favor of the early-voting sites favored by Democrats, grumbled some over the result when the compromise plan dropped Miller Park and Sunday voting.
Democrats could have forced their position on a party-line vote, but a split vote would have taken the question to the N.C. State Board of Elections. Campbell pointed out that Democrats have a majority there too, but said she preferred a compromise that all the members here could agree on.
It’s not entirely clear yet when early voting will actually start for the March 3 primary: As the law now stands, it would begin on Feb. 12 and end on Feb. 28.
A bill is before the General Assembly that would change the time frame so that early voting starts on Feb. 13 and ends on Feb. 29 — that last day being the last Saturday before the primary.
New Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Angela P. Hairston is doing only audio recordings of her sessions with the community “to be sure that I hear what I’m supposed to hear.”
Hairston heard from a group of about 50 people at East Forsyth Middle School in Kernersville on Thursday during a community listening session, saying that the intent of the audio recordings is to “listen for common language themes.”
She said she has visited a number of schools throughout the district and is already hearing similar conversations around student achievement.
“The reason we listen carefully is to ensure we are hearing the right things so when I share back with the board of education, we can steer our work in the right direction,” Hairston said.
Since mid-September, Hairston has been holding listening sessions for the community as well as school system staff.
The meeting at East Forsyth Middle was her fifth session. She has nine left on her schedule.
“I want to ensure you that the board of education is very interested in what you have to say, what you think and how you feel,” Hairston said. “It drives a lot of our work.”
Topics from people in the community included large class sizes, a mandatory African American history class, helping students read at grade level, guns at school and the need for more Spanish interpreters.
Andrea Brueske, a parent of two students at Mount Tabor High School, said she is concerned about the overcrowding in several classes at Mount Tabor and a lot of local schools.
“I know that there is a mandate for K-3 to have lower class sizes, but there hasn’t been anything for middle school and high school,” Brueske said.
Stephanie Wallace, a teacher at East Forsyth High School, said that high school teachers need support to help students who reach high school and are not reading at grade level.
“Like the gentleman said a while ago, the reading is the key to everything,” Wallace said, adding that students need to read in every subject, including math.
Myra Worrell, a WS/FCS retiree who came back to work part time, said that one of her biggest concerns is some of the “one-race” schools in the district.
“Most of them are across Highway 52,” Worrell said, adding that she personally believes the highway is a dividing factor.
“So many of the schools on that side are filled with black and Hispanic children that are reading two and three grade levels behind,” she said.
She said she hears that WS/FCS is concerned about every student, but there are still students who are not succeeding in the school system.
“We have schools that parents will not send their children to,” Worrell said.
Al Jabbar, a volunteer at Petree Elementary School, spoke of the need to have mentors to spend time with African American male students.
“Maybe you can address some of this in terms of why young black males in predominately black schools …have become a feeder system for our prison system?” Jabbar said to Hairston.
Hairston said this was the first time someone had mentioned the number of students in classes to her, but she would look into all class sizes.
She said the school system has some heavy lifting to do.
But, she said, “Oftentimes, when we have schools that are challenging, we can sometimes assume everything is challenging. What I have to say is that every community has greatness going on.”
She gave such examples as a recent farm day at a school and an upcoming shoe drive by the mother of NBA All-Star Chris Paul.
She also said that diversity is a plus in Forsyth County “because diversity forces us to be better people.”
Hairston added, “Children lots of times don’t see beyond where parents take them, and oftentimes they need to see a man in a suit. They need to know, ‘What exactly do you do, so I can maybe aspire to be that?’ We actually have enough men in the district to have a district-wide mentoring program.”
She said that literacy is important, saying that although there are a number of children reading on grade level, there is a gap in certain communities.
“I bring to you the experience in working on those gaps,” Hairston said. “I will say, there’s going to be heavy lifting and there’s going to be us having to focus because oftentimes we’re not focused. But we also have to let our parents know what we expect of them.”
Julie Fritz, a co-education lead for the organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said her group is concerned about guns in schools.
Already, at least three guns have been found this year at schools in the district.
Last week, Hairston asked parents to make sure students don’t bring toy guns to school.
Fritz said Moms Demand Action members have been talking for about three years to school officials about free programs available through Moms Demand Action as well as Sandy Hook Promise, an organization aimed at protecting children from gun violence.
She said her group is excited that the Sandy Hook Promise Say Something Anonymous Reporting System will be implemented in North Carolina schools this year. The goal of the anonymous reporting system is to allow students and adults to be able to confidentially report safety concerns to help prevent violence.
But Fritz said it has been unclear about what’s happening with the use of the app system in the WS/FCS district.
“There’s just not been enough communication,” Fritz said.
Hairston told Fritz that the app will be rolling out after logistics have been worked out so that the system can be monitored.
Gloria Oseguera, a member of an Hispanic committee made up of parents at Atkins High School, said that it is hard to get some Hispanic parents engaged in programs and activities at the school because some do not speak English well.
Oseguera said she would like to see more interpreters in the school system.
Alvi Dove-Ali, a parent, voiced her concerns that her daughter is not being taught some of the things she learned when she was in school.
“I completely and totally push for not just a broader-based African American, Hispanic and multiculturally diverse social studies and history program, but a more diverse program in all of our curriculum,” Dove-Ali said. “There is so much information that is being lost of so many generations.”
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools’ Exceptional Children’s Division will not participate in Special Education Day on Wednesday at the Dixie Classic Fair because it conflicts with the district’s early-release day, Brent Campbell, a spokesman for the school system. said.
Admission is free on Wednesday for people with special needs and their aides. In the past, local students with special needs have gone to the fair on Special Education Day and the program is popular with parents and students.
Mitzi Cartrette, the guardian of a special needs child at Lowrance Middle School, said in an email that “kids with special needs are often unable to go on typical field trips due to the logistics and getting to go to the fair was one outing that they all got to go to and really enjoyed.”
She said she found it hard to believe that the school system did not know the dates for the fair when it made its schedule.
“The fair is always the first full week in October and Special Ed Day is always on Wednesday,” said Cartrette. “I felt like our kids with special needs were being discriminated against.”
Campbell said that school officials know that students in the district’s Exceptional Children’s Division enjoy the fair each year.
But he said that scheduling conflicts were unavoidable this year.
“We do not set the date for the event, the Dixie Classic Fair officials set the date as the day does not just include an invitation to our students but students from multiple counties and school districts in the area,” Campbell said. “They all are invited to take advantage of the discounted/special day.”
He added that the WS/FCS Board of Education changed the 2019-2020 calendar on June 11 to move the early release day from Oct. 16 to Oct. 9, primarily for PSAT testing that involves all high schools.
“We do not and cannot control the PSAT calendar,” Campbell said. “That is the day of the test and our schools could not participate in that testing if it were an Early Release day. So the board made the decision to move it to the best possible day, which was Oct. 9, that just happened to be the day the fair had scheduled their annual fair day event.”
He said that Oct. 9 was the best option to reschedule the early release day, which must be scheduled near the end of a quarter.
“Unfortunately during an early release day we cannot get students to the fair and back to school safely and in time for an early release, so that is why the EC programs cannot participate this year,” Campbell said. ‘We can’t ask the fair to change a day that they plan for many other districts besides ours. I know many other districts also take advantage of the day and any change from the fair would impact far more than just our district.
“It is unfortunate that the dates didn’t align this year, but we hope they will in the future. It is certainly not something that was done intentionally by WS/FCS or the Dixie Classic Fair officials and something I know the board will work to do all possible to avoid in the future within their control.”
Siobhan Olson, a spokeswoman for the Dixie Classic Fair, said that school children from all over North Carolina, as well as southern Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee attend the Special Education Day at the fair.
“We’ve had that school date forever,” Olson said of fair Wednesdays.
She said that it is unfortunate that the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools will not be able to participate this year.
“Of course, we wish that Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools were here, but we understand,” Olson said.
“We expect it to be a big day,” she said.
Winston-Salem leaders sounded ready to roll out the welcome mat for Mount Airy-based Renfro Corp. on Monday, as the city council approved about $300,000 in economic development incentives meant to lure the company into bringing its corporate headquarters here.
Renfro chief executive and president Stan Jewell told members of the Winston-Salem City Council that his company wants to attract a more diversified workforce than it can attract in Mount Airy, and noted that a third of the company’s Mount Airy employees already live in the vicinity of Winston-Salem.
Jewell himself lives in Winston-Salem, but he said after Monday’s council meeting that the move is not a done deal: Forsyth County votes on its own incentives package on Thursday, he said, and after that he and his board will have to discuss the company’s options.
The company has worldwide employment of about 5,500 people, and told local officials that it is also considering New York, Los Angeles and Charlotte as possible locations for a new corporate headquarters.
The company has about 300 employees working in Mount Airy. Renfro is considering relocating 175 jobs from its current headquarters, and possibly creating 50 more jobs at the new site over five years. The average salaries would range from $50,000 for entry-level positions to $240,000 for executives.
During a public hearing on the incentives, supporters stressed the benefits to the city, and opponents criticized incentives for failing to improve the quality of life.
“This is a great project for Winston-Salem and Forsyth County,” said Bob Leak, the president of Winston-Salem Business Inc., an industry-recruitment agency. “We don’t often get a chance to get a headquarters.”
Leak said Renfro employees would create a “significant office presence” downtown that makes the prospect “exciting.”
But Yusef Suggs, executive director of Action4Now, a community group, complained that the city gives incentives to “companies that don’t perform.”
“We have children starving,” Suggs said.
JoAnne Allen, the president of Action4Now, pleaded for the company to come to Winston-Salem if it wants, without getting an incentive.
“I’m sure the company can afford to move here,” she said. “I’m asking this company, ‘Please don’t take the money.’ If you are going to come, come, but stop taking our money.”
Another speaker, Calvin McRae, said he is excited about the company’s plans if they involve coming to Winston-Salem.
“I would love to see this area invigorated by more companies coming here,” he said.
The city incentives are based on the city paying the company about 65 percent of the net new property and sales taxes that would be generated here by company investment and purchases.
Renfro can also collect a $1,500 bonus for each low- or moderate-income person it hires from designated neighborhoods where people are disadvantaged.
Council Member Vivian Burke asked how the city could check on Renfro to see if it is really creating a more diverse workforce. Jewell said that while Renfro is privately-held, it would share workforce demographics with the city.
On Thursday, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners will consider almost $150,000 in incentives to encourage the Renfro move.
In other action:
The Winston-Salem City Council approved the rezoning of about four and a half acres beside Maple Chase Golf and Country Club for duplex housing on Monday.
Plans show that the undeveloped property on the east side of Germanton Road would become the site of 10 duplexes containing 20 residential units, with access to the units from the entry drive to the golf club that intersects Germanton Road across from East Hanes Mill Road.
The rezoning was sought by Gateway Management Services Inc., which also owns the golf course.
Planning staffers said the proposed duplexes would be compatible with the residential uses that are permitted on adjacent properties.
The two-story duplexes would be placed on the east side of a new cul-de-sac drive leading north from the existing golf club parking lot. Each unit would have a garage facing the new private drive on its west side, and patios overlooking the golf course links to the east.