Equity Scores!

On July 1, our Board of Education members met for the second special called meeting of the pre-holiday week to discuss funding for a Reynolds stadium and improvements for Parkland athletics. Both meetings were remarkable for in-depth, honest, and transparent discussion of the topic—something that has been far too rare during any public meeting regarding the Reynolds stadium proposal over the past decade. Discussion covered a broad range of concerns that could be best summarized as a focus on funds, fairness and fealty. Members raised questions that honed the issue to its core. It was encouraging to see equity emerge not just as a token point of discussion but as the mission to place above all others.

Dana Caudill Jones, chair of the Building and Grounds Committee, brought forth the first of what would become three motions that came up for a vote that evening. The first motion was as follows:

“To allocate $2 million to Reynolds and $1 million to Parkland, and those funds come from the current fund balance.”

The questions that followed were straightforward and focused on the funding source: 1) Is there money available in the fund balance? 2) How much if any of the fund balance is already committed to other projects? And 3) Which and/or what type of project is most appropriate for use of a fund balance?

The Fund Balance

Is there money available in the fund balance?

To summarize the lengthy discussion that followed, the short answer is, we don’t know. Had she been allowed only a few extra days, Andrea Gillis, Chief Financial Officer, might have been able to provide an answer. The district is waiting to learn whether the state will or will not contribute funds to a long-overdue computer system replacement. That contribution could make the difference of $2–4 million dollars of anticipated spending. While she was reluctant to provide a total when numbers are still moving, she did say that should everything go as she hoped, the fund balance could amount to about $6.9 million. Then again, citing a goal to build up a fund balance that was depleted prior to her arrival, she expressed apprehension about depleting it to a figure that was too low. 

How much if any of the fund balance is already committed to other projects?

Board member Elisabeth Motsinger recalled a recent request to commit $1 million towards a comprehensive facility review of the district. The anticipated project would provide a balanced look at facility needs across all schools. Again, it became clear in that waiting for this data could have done much to inform this discussion. That project is awaiting approval for a price proposal is still in the works. But in addition to the computer upgrade, that means as much as $5.5 million of the possibly $6.9 million has already be promised to other priorities.

Which and/or what type of project is most appropriate project for use of a fund balance? 

The fund balance, like a savings account, is intended to keep monies on hand in case of emergencies. Leah Crowley, who has frequently made the case that Reynolds stadium is an urgent matter, asked Gillis to explain why updating a computer system should receive priority over something directly related to the student experience. In response, Gillis described the predicament her staff currently faces. The computer system used to tabulate WSFCS payroll is over thirty years old. Technical staff who once provided support for the mainframe have retired and not been adequately replaced. Our school district’s computer is so old it is of the “Hidden Figures” variety, with most calculations made on paper and then entered by hand into the system. Crowley appeared unconvinced.

Why prioritize funds for a new computer system and not a stadium?

Arriving at the same question from a different perspective, Motsinger urged the board to follow rules, saying, “When you say here’s a line, and people break in the line, that doesn’t give the message to our community that I would want to give.” She felt that those instances where groups have wanted to break a line have not been healthy for our district. She asked Superintendent MacManus whether it was better to finance a stadium or any other facility through established practices and procedures related to the bond process. MacManus confirmed that construction of a stadium or any school facility is most appropriate for a bond.

Before she called for a vote on the motion, Jones asked that it  be amended to promise not just funds for athletic improvements, but to do anything they could to focus on the fundraising piece of the project. She asked for “a show of good faith to the community and those who are trying to raise the funds.” 

The motion was not amended and when put to a vote, it failed with members Jones, Crowley and Kaplan voting for and the remaining five members against.

Fairness

While familiar territory for the Reynolds community, Parkland is a relative newcomer to such urgent special-called meetings. It was refreshing to see due consideration for both schools that share Deaton-Thompson stadium. Several board members took efforts to speak on behalf of Parkland students whose needs are parallel to those at Reynolds. Although there were a number of students in attendance, there were none who spoke on behalf of Parkland.

Throughout the discussion, important questions in regards to fairness were raised including: Why was the amount requested for Parkland half that for Reynolds? And Why wasn’t Winston-Salem Prep, who also does not have an on-campus stadium, not being included in the motion?  

The clear solution was to use only funds that are known to be available and allocate them in a prioritized manner. As longtime board member Marilyn Parker said, “It’s important that we start with adequate facilities to get all children practicing on campus” before she called for a need to make practice fields the priority for Reynolds. 

The next step was to frame the motion in a way that balanced needs at all three schools that lack an on-campus stadium. As Bramer said, “If we’re going to talk equity, then we need to be taking about Prep and Parkland first and Reynolds third.”

It was our newest board member, Alex Bohannon, who presented the second motion and it read as follows:

“I move that this board instruct the Superintendent to meet with staff to develop a recommendation to address the funding of athletic facility improvements at Parkland, (Winston Salem) Prep, and Reynolds, and this would include an estimate of costs as well as where we’re going to pull the money from and that needs to be presented to the board at our first Building & Grounds committee meeting in August, and that would include the $500,000 we have in (capital) savings.”

This motion passed, but not before Jones, with uncharacteristic desperation, and full awareness of just how far she was sticking her neck out on the behalf of certain members of the community, asked that the motion be amended to include a financial pledge to Home Field Advantage. 

Bohannon agreed to amend the motion but not to include a pledge. He added,

That a part of the presentation in August includes a recommendation from staff of what we can commit to the project.

The needs described by every student that spoke during public comments—field hockey, soccer and lacrosse players will have a lighted field for practice and for matches, discus and shot put could be thrown in an area shielded away from public use—are going to be met with funds that are known to be available. The motion passed with all members in favor except Crowley and Kaplan.

What these dissenting votes say quite clearly is that improving athletic facilities, reducing lost instruction time and preventing car accidents are not their primary concerns. Without a pledge to Home Field Advantage, they could not vote in favor of the motion. The stadium or something that surrounds the stadium itself is more essential to these two members. Their concerns remained unsatisfied.

And so, Jones brought forth a third motion. This one was almost identical to the motion that had come from the Building & Grounds committee. The only difference being Parkland athletic improvements were removed from the equation. However, Parker requested the motion be amended to avoid promising anything from the fund balance. During the discussion that followed and in light of the freedom to leave it unspecified where the funds would come from, considerations were made to omit time constraints as well—letting the obligation stand for however long it takes to find the money. At that point Deanna Kaplan asked that the motion be amended to raise the pledge to $3 million. 

In the end, the motion, as it was brought forward for a vote was as follows:

“That today, this Board of Education commits $1 million toward the construction of the RJ Reynolds stadium and that how that money is acquired, whether through savings or fund balance, we’ll leave it to staff to identify.”

Considering the board had just approved $500,000 in savings towards the construction of a playing field on the site that would serve the most pressing needs of Reynolds athletics, a project that could arguably be referred to as an early phase of Home Field Advantage’s stadium, Motsinger asked for clarity. Was the $1 million pledge in addition to the money already promised? Jones confirmed it was, adding further clarification that the essential element of her motion was a pledge to the construction of the stadium itself.

Woodbury framed Jones’ frequent appeals best when she summarized it as a need “to send some kind of message to the community about how we’re going to move forward towards the building of a stadium.”

In other words, the final motion of the evening, made by Jones, boiled down to a mission to secure funds not for athletic improvements, not student need, not improve teacher pay, not fiscal responsibility, and not equalizing athletic facilities in the district. The final motion was a request that the District make a symbolic pledge to a private fundraising group to advance their fundraising efforts.

Parker joined Jones, Crowley and Kaplan to vote for the motion but with four against, it was tied and so failed.

Fealty

Jones acknowledged the difference of the Reynolds community by saying it has members who “are willing to work and to raise money for something we really should wholly provide.” 

The same could be said of almost any parent or student organization in the district. How I wish that contributions of items such as BoxTops, hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, and work duties such as chaperone, landscaper, or ride share driver received the same high regard Jones gives to the contributions made by members of Home Field Advantage. Although Jones compared the group’s fundraising project to “a PTA or a booster club or anyone else,” what was clear is that for whatever reason, the requests of this community, this group, are different and take unusual precedence.

Board Member Andrea Bramer drove directly to an important but often disregarded point. She acknowledged that Reynolds has “far more wealth than the alumni base at Parkland and Prep.”

Does Home Field Advantage have that much wealth, really? Private fundraising efforts have fallen far, far short of their goal. While we acknowledge that Home Field Advantage has made progress towards their grandiose stadium plan, those advances came primarily through bond projects. Bond money was used to demolish and rebuild the Wiley Gym and the Wiley drop off area. These projects alone equate to a contribution to Home Field Advantage’s grandiose vision of well over $12 million in taxpayer dollars. And although Home Field Advantage has raised just over $1 million to date, they have far less than that in the bank. 

Board members asked how much Home Field Advantage had or could contribute in private funds, but firm figures were not provided. However, as a non-profit organization, Home Field Advantage must make yearly financial reports public. In 2019, the most recent report available, Home Field Advantage’s assets at year end amounted to $544,450. While individual contributions are far more generous than most parents could possibly contribute to their booster or PTA clubs, they as a group appear to have far less resources to commit to a stadium than implied. They also have a limited pool of prospective donors. That pool seems to have been tapped out years ago.

So what is it about this particular group that necessitates a pledge? Considering everything that was openly discussed, the concern about money and balance, the need for equity or other guiding decision making priorities, what is that inspired Crowley and Kaplan but especially Jones to extend their neck out so far?

What is most evident in their success, is that advocates for Reynolds athletics are far more willing to amass power and abuse it than those who advocate for Parkland and Prep. Crowley and Kaplan have used their position as school board members to advocate for Reynolds not because of an unusual lack of resources, and not because they are parents of Reynolds students but primarily because they are both directly involved with Home Field Advantage. Furthermore, Crowley’s husband is a coach for Reynolds. Several speakers noted their conflicts of interest as they called for Crowley to recuse herself. These pleas were ignored.

The elephant in the room is and has always been power. It is the existence of a power imbalance in the community that made it possible for the stadium to remain a top priority for discussion even in the midst of a global pandemic. Reynolds alumni have a disproportionate amount of influence in Forsyth County. It is the enormity of this backing, this pressure that is able to push and advance an unfunded project forward year after year. Furthermore, it is for this reason alone that even after the District promised to prioritize student athletic facility needs at not one, not two, but three schools, Reynolds boosters continue to complain. 

If anything, it is the timing of the vote that points to power as the guiding force that brought this issue up for a vote and WSFCS staff out for a long meeting on what should have been a relaxing vacation day. Why now? Why not wait a few days find out if the state will contribute to a payroll system upgrade? Why not wait until the audit has been completed? Why not wait until results of the facilities review are available? Home Field Advantage’s design plans expire in November, but that date is still months away. Why not wait until more is known and not rely upon so much estimation and conjecture?

The dulcet tones of the Voice of the Reynolds Demons, Frank Johnson, seemed to provide some clarity. During public comments, Johnson asked that the district make a pledge to Home Field Advantage now because there is an alumni BBQ scheduled for the end of the month. He said this would be the ideal time to raise more funds and they couldn’t let this important window close. That couldn’t be the reason, could it? And yet, it’s the only thing that makes sense. 

Johnson explained a timely pledge would help raise funds at a Reynolds BBQ.

Ultimately, what Home Field Advantage wants, what they will not yield on, is this—they want complete private control over a construction of a public school facility on a site of their choosing. As Nicole Hannah Jones said recently, “Power can be used in service of self or in service of the community. We all have to be responsible for which we choose.”

One thing is perfectly clear, a powerful force with undue control of our Board of Education forced a vote that required WSFCS staff to work after the school year ended. This vote happened without documents necessary to make a sound decision. The only apparent imperative were providing a pledge needed for an upcoming fundraising event.

Forcing a vote on this issue was a display of a gross and negligent abuse of power. Thankfully, there were five votes that formed a strong defensive line that held power in check. The good news is, five undaunted members acting as faithful representatives of all students were willing to keep power in check. That is exactly what’s required to advance equity in this district. 

The stadium gets a “no” vote from the Board, but Equity scores!

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