By Chad Nance & Carissa Joines
In a seven to two vote Tuesday night, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board took action to move the students from Hanes and Lowrance middle schools as soon as possible.
According to a motion put forth by new board member Bob Barr, the 6th grade will be moved to Smith Farm, the 7th and 8th graders will be moved to the unoccupied Hill facility, and the students who attend Lowrance will be moved to Atkins High School. David Singletary and Elisabeth Motsinger voted against the motion.
The decision did not please everyone, but many of the school board members could clearly see the political writing on the wall. The board member’s comments were either an attempt to explain their votes, deflect any calls for accountability, or in the case of Elisabeth Motsinger, barely concealed rage at having her wishes and political needs defied.
The public comment period was held at the beginning of the meeting. The first speaker, Vishal Khanna, was hard on the former school board members who helped create this situation by sitting idly by and taking everything they were told at face value with no thoughtful inquisition or research. When his comments became heated, and directly pointed at the board, Chairwoman Dana Caudill Jones tried to shut him down. Apparently, to her, criticizing the school board is not “constructive”.
Many of the parents who spoke have students attending Hanes and were adamant that they would not be “playing roulette” with the lives of students. Parent after parent passionately spoke about how they would not ever choose to place their child in harms’ way and declared their frustration that they were never offered that choice because they were not notified of the toxic waste. Some brought hard facts and data, others had clever sound bytes, and a few just pled for the use of common sense and logic. It was obvious from the comments that the majority of the speakers had been living with the data and their concerns day and night these last couple of weeks. The three minute allotment per speaker repeatedly closed with some version of the statement “move our kids” or “shut Hanes down.”
A small number of Lowrance teachers and parents were organized and stood to the podium as a single group. They were just as adamant that they did not want to move. Fear of changing their children’s set routines seemed to outweigh caution that they were being exposed to toxic chemicals. This group and a Lowrance parent that followed cherry-picked from the same information and comments that were first used as a defense by board members and then as a lone defense for Motsinger who repeatedly found herself trying to justify her previous inaction and indecision with justifications from “Science” and data that the experts have told parents is not adequate enough to use in forming conclusions.
There was additional concern by some of the Lowrance parents that agreeing to a move might in some way jeopardize their chance for a new facility. This fear was alleviated by Dr. Emory who clearly stated that moving forward for a plan for a new Lowrance was a priority and would be acted upon quickly. Long-term options for Lowrance include Paisley IB Magnet school’s property, located on Grant Ave, which was originally included in the considerations of sites for the new school.
The Lowrance parents clearly felt alienated from the HAG parents in a way that makes it appear misinformation had been spread amongst them in order to sow discord and confusion- divide and conquer. Another strange occurrence was a large contingent of parents and students from Winston-Salem Prep. They had been sent an email by Theo Helm (Beverly Emory specifically denied knowledge of this from the lectern) informing Winston-Salem Prep parents that it was possible their school could be moved and the Hanes/Lowrance programs relocated there. It was obvious from their comments that Prep parents and students thought that their school would be closed. These folks rightly came to make their case- the only problem was that they didn’t have to. There were no serious discussions of closing Prep and the school system knew it wasn’t on the table before tonight’s meeting ever began. Some of the Prep parents in the overflow room were relieved that the school was not being closed, but felt manipulated. Perhaps it was just another communications snafu from the school system.
Dr. Beverly Emory acquitted herself well. If she was once enthralled and wearing rose-colored glasses with the school board- she now clearly realizes that her challenges may be even greater than she’d imagined. What she has done throughout this particular crisis, however, is emerge as a capable leader who has truly begun to listen to students, their parents, and the teachers. Out of deference to the logistical complications that an immediate move would place on her staff and teachers, she recommended to the board that the Hanes/Lowrance programs be moved off site in time for the beginning of the school year in the fall of 2015. Upon learning that the board desired to vote on an earlier timetable, she quickly made the necessary adjustments and included her staff in the conversation before allowing the board to make a determination of the timeline.
Veteran school board members stuck together when it came to deflecting any discussions of accountability at the polls or otherwise. Democrat Vic Johnson spoke highly of Republican Jennie Metcalf. His comments were greeted by laughter and catcalls from Winston-Salem Prep parents in the overflow. Metcalf cried real tears in a rambling speech that managed to come closer than any of the other veterans to admitting that she had failed in her duty. That should be commended, but Metcalf has been known to use tears and platitudes in the past in order to make political statements. A board member who worked with her in the past told CCD that they had watched Metcalf cry with the family of a child who’d committed suicide because of bullying and said she understood their pain. Then she left the room, dried her tears, and stated that the school system didn’t have a problem with bullying. Like all politicians everything must be taken with a tremendous grain of salt.
Motsinger’s comments before the vote amounted to little more than some vague gibberish about the “environment”, but her comments after the vote did not go her way contained some real venom. She was not going to go the Metcalf route and admit that she had made mistakes and she seemed angry that her wishes had not be honored.
For her part Dr. Emory and her staff indicated that this move would be a massive logistical undertaking, but they were going to do everything they could to make it work. The next few weeks will be a critical time for the school system administration and an even more critical time for the students of Hanes/Lowrance.
Also impacted will be the students and staff at Smith Farm Elementary and Atkins High schools. While this solution has only been declared temporary, the current plan is likely to remain in place until other facilities become available. This will mean that incoming students at Atkins next year will likely need to utilize pods, as will students on the new Hanes campus next year, when all of the 6th-8th graders are set to be in class at the same location.
The district has assured students that they will continue to work with their current teachers and principals in the new locations. Transportation will be provided to Lowrance students and students who are residential to Hanes. Magnet Express transportation will be provided to other Hanes students just as it is now, although busses and timetables may change due to the possible changes in bell times and the fact that 6th and 7/8th grades will be attending different schools.
A huge change is in store for these students, parents, staff and support personnel at Hanes and Lowrance. Classrooms will be moved, bus routes will be changed, and routines will be altered. The staff has already started conversations with moving contractors, boxes and tape are being ordered, and rooms will start being prepped soon. While there are still many logistical issues to be worked out, the move is underway.
Vapor-intrusion testing of Hanes and Lowrance will still be done. The district has said that they will share the results when the tests have been completed.
Hanes Magnet School will move to two locations:
The sixth grade will move to Smith Farm Elementary which is located at 4250 Johnny Knoll Lane.. Smith Farm opened for the 2013 school year and currently serves students in kindergarten through fourth grade. The principal is Donald Hampton.
The seventh and eighth grades will move to the former Hill Middle School which is located at 2200 Tryon Street. Hill merged with Philo Middle School in 2012 when the district combined two smaller middle schools. It has not been used since then.
Lowrance Middle School will move to Atkins High School located at 3605 Old Greensboro Road. Atkins is a countywide magnet high school with a STEM theme. The principal is Joe Childers.