Since their start in mid-December, the newest school board has had committee and public meetings with tense exchanges, sharp divides on certain issues and accusations of not working together.
But on Saturday morning, the nine members of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board sat together and confronted these issues and reflected on what they all had in common.
The board held a retreat that touched on all of those issues as well as what norms they would set going forward and what their priorities will be in the upcoming budget.
“I felt the retreat was a good chance for the board to set a clear intention to become a highly functioning team and to discuss the tools we need to use to get there,” board member Elisabeth Motsinger said. “We had some hard conversations that gave us the opportunity to begin again in a more productive fashion.”
The meeting started with team development and evaluation, by On Track Press Inc., led by Larry Coble, a former superintendent of the district.
“Our board must unite and work together as a team,” board member Lida Calvert Hayes said. “I do not want to serve on a board that cannot work together for the best interest of our teachers, students and staff. I think we accomplished a lot, although there is much work left to be done.”
Members in advance of the retreat answered questions about what they felt was working in terms of communication, what needs to improve overall and what the greatest areas of concern are in the district.
The responses were collected and shared — with anonymity — during the retreat, and the board reflected on them and what they can do going forward.
Common themes on communication were that there was little to none among members and they’re not working well together. Transparency and establishing protocols for how board members would not only communicate among each other but how they would collectively communicate with district staff were answers to fixing that issue.
“It is apparent from some of the tense discussions we had that we still have much work to do on honest communication, transparency and inclusion,” board member Lori Clark said. “There are still some issues that will likely have to be confronted, with civility, as we build trust and relationships with one another.
“We have heard recently from the community that they will hold us accountable for how we conduct the business of the board and that they wish us to do it in an open and honest way, and with integrity.”
The impression among many members was that communication between the board and Superintendent Beverly Emory has been positive.
“I feel like we did have some open, honest dialogue today and because of that we are able to move forward and in a positive way where I think we’re just on a different page leaving the retreat today,” said Barbara Burke, vice-chairwoman of the board.
Equity was a common answer to the biggest challenge the district faces. And focusing on appreciation toward teachers was a common response to what priorities should be established to meet the biggest challenges in the district.
And finally, when asked what they would personally be willing to do to help the board be more effective, the common theme was they’d be willing to do whatever it takes for the benefit of the students, teachers, staff and others in the district they are tasked to serve.
“I think we all felt very positive moving forward as we found common ground with our shared goals and objectives,” board member Deanna Kaplan said.
“I think that we started to come up with some norms to help us to function better as a board and everybody is committed to the process,” Chairwoman Malishai Woodbury said.
Board member Andrea Bramer was still concerned about ethical conflicts of interests among board members, particularly Leah Crowley chairing the Building and Grounds Committee and having advocated for a stadium at Reynolds High School, and Kaplan chairing the finance committee when her husband, Ted Kaplan, is a county commissioner.
“I’m concerned that the future perception of this board will involve back room deals and more ethical dilemmas,” Bramer said. “There are huge problems in equity and literacy. We spend so much time catering to Home Field Advantage and fighting over ethics while children suffer and the gap grows.”
Both Crowley and Kaplan decline having any conflicts of interest in their roles.
“We all agreed that conflict of interest is up to each board member to own and to insinuate that someone else has a conflict, where it is not clearly a conflict, is implying that the board member is unethical,” Crowley said. “We agreed to assume good intentions from each other.”
On budget priorities, the board agreed to focus on seven areas: increasing teacher pay, improving reading and math proficiency, addressing the achievement gap, reducing the number of low-performing schools, addressing social-emotional needs, improving facilities that limit access, and reducing programs that are ineffective or inefficient.
“We went through an exercise to identify district goals,” Crowley said. “When we grouped what each board member wrote, it was great to see how aligned all the goals were.
“It showed that we have a shared vision — a great first step toward achievement.”