The political bent of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools board appears likely to come down to which candidates win at-large seats in the November general election.
There are seven at-large candidates for the three available board seats: three Democrats, three Republicans and one Libertarian.
Even though five incumbents opted not to run for re-election, a 5-4 Democratic or 5-4 Republican majority is the expected outcome given typical Republican-leaning voter patterns for the four District 2 seats and only Democrats ran for the two District 1 seats.
Democrat Deanna Kaplan, the board’s current chairwoman, is the only incumbent on the at-large ballot.
In the Democratic primary, Kaplan led with 14,443 votes, followed by Richard Watts with 13,867 and Sabrina Coone-Godfrey with 11,775.
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In the Republican primary, Sarah Absher led with 9,837 votes, followed by Michael Hardman with 9,702 and Allen Daniel with 7,482.
Given those voting totals, the key for Republicans in winning a 5-4 board majority may be whether they can coalesce around one of its three candidates since splitting votes among their candidates could allow all three Democrats to win a board seat.
Also on the ballot is Libertarian candidate Regina Garner.
Sarah Absher has focused four platforms: academic, fiscal responsibility, safety and transparency.
Under transparency, her campaign website lists that “parents and the community have the right of full disclosure and clarity of policies, programs, curriculums and incidences happening within the school system.”
“These are some of the primary reasons that I threw my hat into the ring for the school board,” Absher said.
“For example, board meetings occur on Tuesday evening, once per month. If you’re a parent (or other concerned citizen) who would like to be heard, you need to be there at that time. This creates problems for shift workers and those with other responsibilities.
“One of my campaign promises is to hold office hours twice a month at different times and locations throughout the county so that my constituents can voice their concerns to me, even if they can’t make it to a formal meeting.”
WS/FCS officials say teachers post their curriculum on their individual web pages for their respective schools.
Absher appears to be the foremost candidate attempting to interject national educational issues into the at-large school board race.
“I believe the government does not co-parent with us. ... I will ensure critical race theory and critical gender theory are not in our classrooms. As an RN, I have the knowledge and ability to push back when ‘public health’ is weaponized against our children, like it was during COVID. Our schools should have never been closed.”
Absher has received endorsements from Put Children First Again and Education First Alliance, which bills itself as an organization “fighting for parental rights and against schools radicalizing and sexualizing our children.”
She also has been endorsed by the socially conservative N.C. Values Coalition, the first time the advocacy group has made school board endorsements.
In campaign material, Absher is shown with controversial Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who is known for his fiery rhetoric and controversial stances on public health and social issues involving the LGBTQ community.
Absher has likened social emotional learning to Marxism.
School systems across the country, including the local district, teach an instructional approach known as social emotional learning to teach kids how to develop social skills, manage emotions and find support systems. It’s become a target among some conservative groups.
Absher cited her concerns with the school board contracting with third-party curriculum companies to meet state standards related to social emotional learning.
“If I am fortunate enough to earn the votes of my fellow citizens, one of my first acts will be to push for an independent audit, focusing on these third-party providers,” Absher said.
Coone-Godfrey said she would bring a volunteer’s hands-on perspective to the school board, as well as that of a parent with children in WS/FCS.
“It’s an opportunity for our community to rally behind my candidacy, someone who is just like them — a parent, a member of the community,” Coone-Godfrey said.
“I have been extremely involved in the school system for the last nine years and have a pulse with what is going on in the district. I have a boots on the ground perspective, seeing what’s going on from within the schools. within the classroom.
Coone-Godfrey said it’s hard to narrow down the issues facing WS/FCs to two or three “because so many are intertwined.
She highlighted teacher and staff retention and recruitment sustainability, and closing and eliminating the achievement gap.
Enhancing teacher support must focus on “bringing resources back into our buildings to take some of the demands off our educators,” she said.
“This includes more teacher assistants, exceptional child case managers, more social workers and therapists.
“In addition, we need to be actively working (lobbying, working with county commissioners, grants) to secure funding so that we can make sure all our educators and staff are compensated appropriately.”
Coone-Godfrey said she is hopeful that “voters will recognize that a commonsense approach to education is much more beneficial to our students and our educators and staff.”
“That they will look at things that are actually going on in our district, and not let things that are being thrown around nationally affect them. Not all the things being talked about nationally are even issues locally.”
Coone-Godfrey said having the next board being comprised of a majority of new members can be advantageous “in having new, fresh voices. Changes isn’t always bad, but with some incumbents that I hope will be back with us because it will be so important for everyone to work together.”
Allen Daniel describes himself as a “data person,” a characteristic he said he will bring to the school board if elected.
In particular, Daniel said he wants to review the district’s financial report every month.
“I don’t think anybody on the board understands budget numbers. It’s like, ‘OK, we have money in the bank, so we’re good,’” said Daniel, an accounting software developer.
Daniel is a graduate of West Forsyth High School, taught a few years in the school district and has two children at West Forsyth.
He has been a regular at school board meetings for years, frequently criticizing school board and district decisions, including the funds paid to oversee the school district’s new code of student conduct.
“Basically, 99% of teachers in our district know how to do classroom management,” he said.
One of Daniel’s main goals is to provide classroom educators with the resources they need to help students reach their fullest potential. Daniel has been critical of the district for allowing students to advance to the next grade or graduate without being proficient.
“I believe firmly that every child is capable of living up to or down to our expectations,” he said.
Regina Garner’s campaign website is branded as “save our kids” and “garner your rights” as she said she is “fighting for change and progress.”
Garner writes that her motivation for running for the school board comes from becoming a mother in December 2019 and what she considers as threats to keeping her daughter “safe and protected” following the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
Garner ties in what she called rampant censorship, more acceptable cancel culture, and mandates and medical tyranny to how children are being manipulated in how they are being educated.
At a school board meeting in February, Garner was among the public speakers who attempted to file a lawsuit against the school district for, among other things, practicing medicine without a license, committing child abuse because of masking and violating the state’s obscenity law by keeping in school libraries materials “with obscene and inappropriate images.”
The lawsuits are part of a QAnon-approved tactic that has played out in other parts of the country.
“The most pressing issue is that our education system has been overpowered by the federal government,” Garner said.
“Parents no longer have a say on what or how their children are educated. The people that we elected to serve us, listen to us, and look out for us — because that’s their job — are no longer doing that.
“I believe we need to stop accepting federal government funding with stipulations attached that require certain programs, and relinquish the power back to the counties and state.”
Garner said that while she is running as a Libertarian, “really, a school board should be nonpartisan in relation to them fulfilling their duties as our elected officials.”
“I’m not influenced by party affiliation. But rather morals and knowing the difference between what’s right and just versus what’s misguided or unethical.
“For me, I’m running on truth. Hopefully, the truth will appeal to voters.”
Political newcomer Michael Hardman is running on a theme of “Back to Basics,” which he described as more about giving teachers the time and space to teach rather than any sort of curriculum upheaval.
“I hear teachers talk about the volume of training. It’s a time-consuming activity,” Hardman said.
“My approach is to say, ‘Let’s start looking what are those things specifically. Let’s discuss it with the state.’ We’re one of the largest districts in the state, and we should have a say in this.”
Freeing up teachers can also work as a way to retain them, he said.
Improving compensation and making schools safe can also help the district keep teachers.
A graduate of Mount Tabor High School, Hardman has three children in the school district, which, he said, means he has “skin in the game.”
Hardman is an engineer in a construction firm and has experience overseeing school-construction projects, including some involving bond money.
“I think that brings an important mindset to the board,” he said. “I’m a methodical problem-solver.”
If elected, Hardman said he will have no problem working with board members from different political backgrounds.
“Whatever political makeup it ends up being, I can work with folks,” he said.
With just four incumbents running for re-election, Kaplan said being re-elected to the board and potentially serving again as chairwoman would be advantageous to the new board composition.
“As chairperson, I believe I have demonstrated strong leadership and the ability to bring our board together and move forward on items that are important to our kids, teachers and parents,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan said that although recent compensation increases for teachers have been achieved, “that’s only part of what we need to do.”
“Our teachers and staff need to know that they are appreciated and valued, and that we as a board recognize the essential contributions they are making.
“Additionally, we need to listen more closely to them and work together to create the best possible environment we can in the classroom.”
Kaplan said a primary role of public education is the diversity it brings to the classroom and to students.
“The value of public schools is that they reflect the diversity of the world in which we live, bringing together children from all cultural, economic and social backgrounds,” Kaplan said.
“I believe that public schools stand alone in providing the widest and most diverse opportunities for our children not only to receive a great education, but to grow as individuals and understand the importance of building a community inclusive of everyone.”
Watts believes his experience as a principal at three WS/FCS schools — Kimberley Park Elementary, Julian Gibson Elementary and Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy — gives him the background and real-life expertise to tackle the challenging issues before the school board.
“I am running as an educator for education,” said Watts, who spent 32 years in WS/FCS before retiring.
“I’ve been pretty clear about my campaign platform of school safety, community, academic achievement, relationships within and outside the district, and sustainability.”
Watts said he puts school safety first because “students and adults must feel safe daily as they go about the work of teaching and learning. All students and staff need to be insured that everything is being done to create a safe learning environment.
“I will continue the anti-bullying initiatives and investigate areas of social emotional learning to support students, parents and staff. In building respect, we must let our teachers teach.”
Watts said WS/FCS schools “must continue to find ways to decrease and close achievement gaps. We must fund research-based curriculum that will improve our reading and math scores at the elementary level.”
Watts said he believes some of the national politicizing of school board races “has crept into our discussions.”
“A lot of people are asking about book banning, the curriculum being taught in the classroom, critical race theory.
“In my opinion, those are all national issues that have very little impact on what we’re trying to do locally in the school system,” Watts said.
Watts said that most of the school board candidates are running not to implement those national concerns, “but to uplift local education, and that local issues and local concerns will prevail.”
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