WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) – As voters in Forsyth County continue to the polls in this election cycle, one name on the ballot won’t be the same as the candidate in the race.

Among the five candidates on the ballot to represent District 2 on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education is the name of Stan Elrod, who died unexpectedly on Oct. 25, just four days after early in-person voting had begun across North Carolina.

Elrod, a Republican, was replaced in the race on Tuesday by Susan Miller, a former educator who had lost in the primary in May, in a vote by the county Republican party. Miller, 68, served as a teacher and in other roles with the school district.

In the primary election on May 17, Miller had finished in sixth place in a bid for one of four GOP slots. She received 6,254 votes, which was 545 behind incumbent Lida Calvert Hayes in fifth and 1,229 behind Steve Wood, who secured the fourth and final spot.

Five people are vying for four seats in the race: Robert Barr (R-Clemmons), Jennifer Castillo (D-Winston-Salem), Leah H. Crowley (R-Winston-Salem) and Wood (R-Pfafftown).

But their names are on the ballot. Miller’s is not.

“According to state law, since absentee by-mail ballots have already been mailed out and in-person early voting has already commenced, the name of the deceased candidate [Elrod] shall remain on the ballots,” Forsyth County Director of Elections Tim Tsujii told WGHP in an email. “However, the county executive committee of the deceased candidate’s political party must name a replacement by Election Day, and the votes that the deceased candidate [Elrod] receives will go towards the replacement candidate [Miller]. 

“Our poll workers can share the information above if asked by a voter.” 

The cause of Elrod’s passing is unclear. He was a longtime principal and athletics director in the county.

“We are very, very saddened by this,” Ken Raymond, the chair of the Forsyth County Republican Party, told the Winston-Salem Journal. “We feel sorry for his family (members) for their loss.”

Other races

The school board also is electing three at-large representatives and two for District 1. The candidates are:

At-large candidates: Sarah Absher (R-Winston-Salem), Sabrina Coone-Godfrey (D-Winston-Salem), Allen Daniel (R-Clemmons), Regina Garner (L-Winston-Salem), Michael Hardman (R-Winston-Salem), Deanna Kaplan (D-Winston-Salem), Richard Watts (D-Winston-Salem).

District 1: Alex B. Bohannon (D-Winston-Salem), Trevonia “BG” Brown-Gaither (D-Winston-Salem).

The candidates speak

WGHP reached out to candidates, asking each the same basic questions. That includes Miller.

Some – but not all of them – responded, and a few did so in much more detail than others. Those responses are presented as offered, lightly edited and formatted, with the candidates in alphabetical order. Incumbents are noted.

At-large candidates

Why are you running for the board and what are your priorities for serving?

Sarah Absher

Sarah Absher (R-Winston-Salem)

One of the main catalysts that motivated me to run was witnessing the negative impact of the current board’s COVID policies on our son and other students. Keeping schools closed to in-person learning had a tremendously negative impact—and this is borne out by statistics. When the current board took office, 55% of our third- and eighth-graders could read at grade level. Now it is only 40%. Our school system is at an inflection point. Are we going to continue this decline, or are we going to “pull it out of the ditch?” Rather than sit back and complain, I want to be part of the solution. As a nurse, I will bring years of experience solving problems, thinking creatively, and demonstrating empathy. I have never hesitated to advocate vigorously for what’s best for my patients. I’ve seen how institutions can ignore the concerns of the less fortunate. I will not allow that to happen on my watch.

Sabrina Coone-Godfrey

Sabrina Coone-Godfrey (D-Winston-Salem)

My heart and passion centers center on public education; I have been an active volunteer in the district for a decade. My service, advocacy and support of students, educators and staff are what led me to run for the school board. Our district has had an achievement gap that pre-dates the pandemic. Closing or eliminating this achievement gap must continue to be a priority. Our staff and educator retention and recruitment are also critical issues and must be a focus – without our staff and educators, we cannot make the academic strides needed. We need to not only work to ensure we have proper funding, but we must work to ensure that the environments in our buildings are ones that foster respect and trust of our educators and staff. We need to listen to the voices of these folks and work with them to find solutions outside of just the financial needs.

Allen Daniel

Allen Daniel (R-Clemmons)

I am running for the school board to do everything possible to help every child in the district reach their full potential. In order to do that, we have to give our teachers the resources, the time, and the autonomy they need to do their job effectively. Resources include financial and human resources. Teachers are expected to do far more than is possible for one person to do. They need support personnel in place, at every school, to help children who struggle. We cannot continue to just pass kids from grade to grade until they walk across a stage into a world for which they are totally unprepared. My first priority will be to figure out how to fill all the vacant teacher and classified support positions. The problem is partly money, but it is also the behavior issues in the classroom and on the buses. Next will be to ask the teachers what they need to be able to do their job more effectively. WS/FCS has a track record of paying lots of money for programs that don’t work. We need to stop asking the so-called experts and buying their latest silver bullet and ask the real experts – our teachers. Currently, our teachers are really the only people in the district held accountable for anything, and they are held accountable for much that is beyond their control. We need to start holding everyone accountable, from the youngest kindergartener to high school seniors, parents, admins, and the school board.

Regina Garner

Regina Garner (I-Winston-Salem)

I’m running because I’m concerned for the future of our children. I’m a parent who is unhappy with the decisions that the present board has been making and the curricula that are currently being implemented. I know there are others like me – parents – who disapprove of how things are going in our education system. I would like to be an advocate for parents and children who desperately want their voices to be heard. We deserve to have board members who will actually work to serve us – we the people.

Michael Hardman

Michael Hardman (R-Winston-Salem)

I grew up in Winston-Salem and was a student in our public schools. Now I’m a father of three students in our schools, one in elementary, one in middle, and one in high school. Students are not achieving at grade level anymore. Only 1 in 4 are reading at grade level. Only 2 in 5 can do math at grade level. I believe we have strayed from a focus on the basics. Our teachers are not able to teach without bias or burdensome requirements. Our students are distracted and are concerned about safety. As a board of education member, my focus will be getting back to basics, raising expectations, and restoring our schools to places of respect, integrity, and safety so everyone can succeed.

Richard Watts

Richard Watts (D-Winston-Salem)

My passion for students and the teaching profession has no bounds. I want to serve to make both areas better. I am running for the WSFCS school board because I would like to see our school system become the best in the state at education and providing the best opportunities for all students. I have served Forsyth County public education for over 32 years. I have excelled at being a classroom teacher and as an administrator. I was a classroom teacher at Wiley Middle School. I was an assistant principal at Southwest Elementary School in Clemmons. I was the principal of Kimberley Park Elementary, Julian Gibson Elementary School and Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy School. I was selected Principal of the Year twice by my peers. I am running as an educator for education.

What are the biggest pros and cons about W-SFCS?

ABSHER: During my campaign, I’ve enjoyed talking to people across Forsyth County about their hopes and concerns regarding our school system. We have some excellent teachers and staff, and the Career Center is truly an asset to our system. I have also heard stories from parents whose children suffered during remote learning and forced masking. East Winston community leaders told me school closings devastated children already in difficult circumstances. Parents have told me that they feel that our public schools are no longer a place where their Christian values are respected. Also, parents have lamented to me certain pet projects are prioritized over others, ignoring large parts of the district — I’ve heard this the most in Walkertown and Kernersville. Classified staff have told me their pay is not competitive to fill the hundreds of openings leading to the staffing crisis. I’ve heard from teachers and parents they feel schools are not safe. Particularly, I have heard from teachers who feel unsupported when trying to address discipline issues in the classroom. Shockingly, I recently heard from the parents of a young woman that their daughter has been forced to share a locker room with a biological male. Currently there is no official policy preventing this. This is a significant concern and a safety issue.

COONE-GODFREY: WS/FCS offers all children an opportunity to attend school and not just receive an excellent education but to find their strengths and passions. Our district offers opportunities for students not only to graduate with a high school diploma but with a career path, associate degree or college-level courses completed prior to graduation. These amazing opportunities allow our scholars to launch into the world ready to tackle the next steps that await them. I want to see us grow and expand programs throughout the district so that we can more equitably serve students that have exceptional needs (EC, AG/HAG) and/or want to explore some of the CTE offerings or other pathways we only offer at certain campuses. We have made great strides within the district but there is still much work to be done.

DANIEL: The biggest pros in the district are our people. We have thousands of excellent teachers, support personnel, admins, parents and students. The vast majority want the best for all concerned. A few are preventing that from happening. The cons are primarily policy. We give students 50 points for nothing. We do not provide them the support they need to grow, both in their education and their personal development. We do children no favors by allowing them to graduate with anything less than a high school education. We have elementary schools where less than 25%of students can read or do math at grade level; yet those students move on to middle school and high school. We never hold them accountable for their education or their behavior. Without an education, those students have little hope for a better life.

GARNER: The positive is that there are enough people who think like me who are also standing up for what’s right. There’s hope that we can get enough like-minded individuals on our board to halt the trajectory of where our children’s education is going – which is Marxism/communism. The cons are there are still many who are oblivious to what’s happening in our schools and have no idea that anything is wrong. And there’s people serving on the board who – although they may have good intentions – are doing nothing to advocate for the parents or students. They are complicit with the agenda that the federal government is promoting.

HARDMAN: We have a unique school choice model in our county. This allows parents to choose which school is right for their student, at any given time of their education. Many of our high school students take classes at the Career Center, where you can obtain a certificate or take AP classes not taught at some of the high schools. We also have a rich history of athletics, arts, music and accelerated programs among our school community. What we do not have are equally thriving schools that are keeping teachers and producing students ready for life. We must engage families, honor our veteran teachers, and challenge our students equally in order to create a public school system of excellence.

WATTS: Pro: The community supports public education with funding, non-profit initiatives, volunteers and resources. There are committed school staff who go extra the mile to support students and parents. Despite the negativity and the current climate around public schools, WSFC schools provide opportunities for all students to reach their fullest potential. Con: lack of funding and support from the state level

What steps can the board take to improve public education?

ABSHER: The first priority of everyone in the school system—from the board to the superintendent, to the principals, teachers, bus drivers and staff — is to ensure that every student gets a sound basic education. One thing the board can do is to commission an in-depth, independent audit with a particular focus on third-party vendor contracts, such as those with whom we partner to provide Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) curricula. My goal is to be approachable, responsive, and transparent. We should facilitate a culture of accountability. We have not succeeded if our children are not prepared for college, military service, trade school, or the workforce when they graduate. To improve outcomes, we should not be afraid to admit when policies have failed. We will never improve unless we have an honest conversation about what is not working. Unfortunately, that is not the culture on the current board. For example, no one has taken responsibility for the board’s failed COVID policies. The voters deserve better. And fortunately, the voters have a choice on Nov. 8.

COONE-GODFREY: We must commit to being a united voice and fight for our district’s needs, both financial and physical, at the state & local levels. In addition, we need to commit to listening to our educators and staff to ensure that the decisions we make are working at the implementation level (schools).

DANIEL: The board can make policy that provides the teachers the support they need. It can advocate for the reallocation of funds, more toward salaries and less toward programs that have no record of success. The board can establish policy that holds students accountable for their education and their behavior. If they are disruptive or if they are not growing in their education, we need to provide them with opportunities to access support. The key to success in public education will always be teachers. They know the problems. They know what they need to reach every child. The board needs to listen to them and give them the autonomy and support they need. We need to give them the time to reach every child right where they are and bring them along to proficiency and beyond. The goal should not be proficiency; the goal should be excellence; for every child at every school.

GARNER: One of the first steps in correcting our education system would be to abolish SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) from our classrooms. It takes time away from students’ learning the basic fundamentals needed to succeed in life like reading, writing, math, etc. Not only is it unnecessary, but it’s a form of mind manipulation. We do not need our schools influencing our children on what to think or how to feel. They are supposed to be teaching our kids how to think. Also stop pushing equity as a basis on how we run our schools. The only concept we should be promoting is equality. And under no circumstance should we accept federal funding or allow the federal government to dictate how or what our kids are taught. 

HARDMAN: My platform focuses on getting back to the basics of education. This isn’t just about reading, math, and civics. It’s also about safety, respect, and high standards. The board can raise the bar. When we do so, we will all rise together for a common outcome. I want all of our schools to be excellent, but to do that we must allow our teachers to teach without bias and allow our students to learn free from distractions or violence. There are steps we can take to deliver this for our schools. I believe we need to start with improving safety and expecting higher standards from everyone involved in our schools.

WATTS: WS/FCS is one of the 100 largest school districts in the country. We should also be one of the highest-performing districts. We will be a leader in academic outcomes, graduation rates and college scholarships. We will also recognize various aspects of student achievement in the arts, career tech and JROTC. The “status quo” is not acceptable! I pledge to look at every facet of the District to determine how we can improve in that area. From board effectiveness to school leadership, to teacher quality, to bus transportation, to instructional effectiveness, to financial stewardship and transparency, to technology, to diversity and equity, and to school safety, to which we have talked about previously. I also pledge to visit schools to see the facilities as well to meet staff and students and to ask the questions: what are we doing well? What do we need to improve? And how can we make “it” better? Our school system must seek ways to improve the educational success of all students in elementary, middle, and high school. We must continue to find ways to decrease and close achievement gaps. We must fund research-based curricula that will improve our reading and math scores at the elementary level. Then, we can continue to strengthen the academic and social skills at the middle school and at the high school levels to prepare students for Life: work, college, or military

District 1

Why are you running for the board and what are your priorities for serving? 

Trevonia “BG” Brown-Gaither (D-Winston-Salem)

Trevonia “BG” Brown-Gaither

I am running for school board in hopes that I can help to remedy some of the inequities I have experienced while teaching in the system for 19 years

What are the biggest pros and cons about W-S/FCS? 

BROWN-GAITHER: Pros: Teachers and staff who continue to show up to teach all of our children even under difficult situations such as the pandemic. Cons: Inequities in our system such as: the extremely high student-to-teacher ratio in beginning-level classes such as Foundations of Math 1 and schools where parent participation (PTA) is low, and the school misses out on some of the benefits the fundraisers help to fund.

What steps can the board take to improve public education? 

BROWN-GAITHER: Continuously lobby the state legislature and city officials for additional funding to recruit and retain top-notch staff, to help fund some of the repairs and new construction that our system needs and lastly meet with students, teachers, staff and parents to get input on the top five needs or concerns.

District 2

Why are you running for the board and what are your priorities for serving? 

Jennifer Castillo

Jennifer Castillo (D-Winston-Salem)

I am running for school board because I care about the education of our children in this community. I was educated by the WSFC school system, and I received a high level of instruction through my honors classes at Southeast Middle School and honors seminar and AP classes at Glenn and at the Career Center. But I saw inequities in the level of education I received and that of my peers that were in the “regular” classes. Now my children are being educated by the WSFC school system, and I want to make sure that I am a part of creating a safe and supportive school environment for them and for all.  I care about the policies we set and the schools we serve. I recognize that the school board race is just as important as any of the other races on the ballot, and this year more than ever now that extremists are trying to get seats on the board to push their extremist agendas. I believe the people of District 2 deserve representation from someone who reflects their values and will advocate on their behalf. My priorities include creating safer school environments, protecting teacher pay, and increasing the resources available for students and staff. 

Susan Miller

Susan Miller (R-Clemmons)

I am a very commonsense, logical problem solver. Relationship-building is of utmost importance to me. Being very passionate about our students, parents, educators, and community at large, I want to focus on increasing our reading scores, and that will be my highest priority. My experience and expertise with the WS/FCS as a classroom teacher, curriculum coordinator and instructional facilitator is in literacy, and I know firsthand how it improves the quality of life for our students and their futures.

Steve Wood

Steve Wood (R-Pfafftown)

Liberty’s only sure defense is an educated citizenry. I believe our schools should nurture and nourish an informed patriotism among our young. I want our students to learn to love freedom and this great country we call America.

What are the biggest pros and cons about W-SFCS?

CASTILLO: I believe we can create a more unified school system. There seems to be a disconnect between individual school protocols and county-wide school system protocols, as was evidenced during the COVID crisis in the schools. How one school handled a student testing positive for COVID was different than how another school handled it, which was sometimes different than what the school system policy was on handling it. So creating clear and concise policy and having a good working relationship with the superintendent and the school administrators will prove crucial in ensuring that we are all on the same page with our response to the pandemic, or any other emergency situation that we are faced with. I also think we need to address the issues with bus transportation in our schools. It should not take two to three hours for our children to get home after school, but it continues to happen due to bus driver shortages. Sometimes older children are left on the bus with younger children, and that can prove to be an issue as well. So the entire transportation system needs to be looked at and modified so that our children can have safe and timely transportation to school. Our bus drivers are only paid once a month, and the hours they work limit them from being able to have another job in between, so in order to address the bus driver shortage we need to address the way they are paid. One of the biggest pros of our school system is the amount of diversity that we have among our students. The school board composition should be a reflection of the diverse group of students we serve, so that we can create policies that are equitable in how they address the needs of the students of different abilities or different cultures. The school system has done a great job of creating more inclusive environments by celebrating the accomplishments of our students of different abilities, and I think we should continue to support that, but we should also lead the way in creating more opportunities for these students to thrive in our schools and in our communities.  One of our biggest assets is our teachers. They come from some of the greatest schools around, where they were trained in creative curriculums and innovative teaching methods. We should continue to support them by giving them the resources they need to be able to create fun and exciting learning plans for our students. Our teachers have spent years purchasing instructional material out of their own monies, yet most of them work in one of the most philanthropical cities around: Winston-Salem. I have served on executive boards before, and I understand that an effective board uses its own connections and community ties to secure funds and donations for its organization. If we want to be an effective school board, we should do the same. We should always advocate for the betterment of all the schools in our system.

MILLER: Pros: W-S/FCS is a robust community of families, students and educators who are innovative and creative in problem-solving. Strong relationships exist amongst these groups, which is the key to advancing our students. We must work as a team to support our students. Cons: Low literacy rates and a few schools with unhealthy climate and culture.

WOOD: The post-pandemic fallout is significant. We must have all hands on deck to recover from the fallout, recapture the love for learning and facilitate a future educational journey for our students that will prepare them for the future in academic pursuits or vocational training.

What steps can the board take to improve public education? 

CASTILLO: First and foremost, the board should always be fiscally responsible with our public education funds. That means we hold people accountable, including ourselves, with regard to the monies we get (the bulk of that coming from the state and from the county commissioners). We cannot be reckless and order any spending without understanding if there is even a need for it. As candidates, we should continue growing the relationships we now have with our future state legislators, so that we can demand the release of the Leandro funds to our schools. That money would bring in 107 million dollars that we could use to hire more teacher assistants and competitively pay our teachers and support staff like technology coordinators and parent involvement specialists. Before entering into contracts with any organizations, the school board members should be well-versed on the organizations: who they serve, what they represent, and how they measure their success. That responsibility falls on each individual board member to do their due diligence and learn more about these organizations before any votes are taken. We can create a stronger public education system by creating stronger schools. Private schools give our students and their families the advantage of offering smaller class sizes and specialized curriculums. If our Legislature would set smaller classroom sizes and limit all the testing requirements for public schools, our teachers would be able to actually teach. As a parent of a child who went to an arts-based charter school for all of his elementary school career, I know that there are other ways we can teach our students, track their growth, and test their success. It might be time for the state legislature to break ties with their usual testing providers and begin to look at some of these other methods of tracking student success. School board members should remain in constant communication with our state representatives to talk to them about what really works in our schools, since the state regulates what we teach and how we teach it. Together, we can improve public education. 

MILLER: Continue to strive to ensure healthy climates and cultures exist on our school campuses so that our students will feel psychologically and physically safe. Provide students with researched based reading instruction which is currently being put in place by W-S/FCS as our teachers are being trained in the “science of reading” and rolling it out as they learn it. Improving our literacy rates is our “golden ticket.”

WOOD: Provide a safe learning environment. Pursue the basics of reading, writing and math. Explicitly disavow the “wokeism” agenda and cultural dismantlement of critical race theory. Put parents at the center of the learning process. Compensate the teachers and professionals that keep the education wheels rolling.

Who didn’t respond?

Although we sent our questions to all persons in competitive elections from this board and followed with a reminder, some did not respond, not even to say they did not want to participate in answering questions that might inform the electorate. Those who did not:

  • At-large candidates: Incumbent Deanna Kaplan (D-Winston-Salem).
  • District 1: Incumbent Alex B. Bohannon (D-Winston-Salem).
  • District 2: Robert Barr (R-Clemmons), incumbent Leah H. Crowley (R-Winston-Salem).