November 15, 2012
The Guilford County Board of Education had a hard time naming the new southeast Guilford County elementary school on Thursday, Nov. 8 – but after much discussion, named it after George C. Simkins Jr. on a 5-to-4 vote.
It shouldn't be surprising that the school board had difficulty naming the school. It has had more difficulty with the southeast area elementary school than with any of the 27 projects funded by school bonds approved by voters in May 2008.
You could argue that the school board has had a harder time with its proposed airport area high school, because it couldn't find land for the school, which may never be built. But no one really organized to support or oppose the airport area high school. No one seemed to have strong feelings about it at all, except the municipalities controlling properties the school board wanted to buy.
Not so with the southeast area elementary school, which the school board repeatedly tried to build due east from Greensboro, igniting a firestorm of organized protest that resulted in the school board backing down and buying a 32-acre parcel at 3511 East Lee St. owned by Joseph and Patsy Pringle of Burlington.
The school board had requests for seven different names for the school, six the names of people and one, "Gateway Elementary School," that was quickly discarded because it would cause confusion with the Gateway Education Center for students with disabilities on East Wendover Avenue.
The remaining six proposals included ones to name the school for First Lt. Wesley M. Pringle Jr., a member of the Pringle family, whose farm was purchased for the school's site and who, as a member of the Army Air Corps, was the only graduate of Alamance School killed in World War II; US Rep. Howard Coble; Robert Utley, who was principal of Nathanael Greene School for 23 years and superintendent of buildings and grounds for the old Guilford County school system for 20 years.
They also included proposals to name the school for Henry Frye, the first black member of the North Carolina General Assembly in the 20th century and the first black chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court; David Monroe Chrismon, who was a member of the Guilford County Board of Education from 1922 to 1930, when he was killed in a car accident; and Simkins, a Greensboro dentist who filed several lawsuits against segregation in Greensboro, including Simkins v Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital, which went to the US Supreme Court and desegregated hospitals nationwide.
The largest contingent of southeast Guilford County residents at the school board meeting supported Utley, including school board member-elect Linda Welborn, who will replace District 5 school board member Paul Daniels in December. The new elementary school will be in District 5. Utley was also supported by frequent school board meeting speaker Joe Stafford, who filed the application to name the school for him.
When Stafford asked supporters of naming the school for Utley to stand, almost half the audience did so. Stafford said, "Mr. Utley's name has stood the test of time."
Naming schools is a frequently contentious process, and after reading the names, Guilford County Schools
Chief of Staff Nora Carr quickly ducked out of the line of fire, saying that the staff recommendation was for the school board to select one of the suggested names. That drew laughter from the audience.
When the school board began its discussion of naming the school, it quickly became apparent that most school board members, as they had with the elementary school's site, disagreed with the southeast residents and favored Simkins or Coble, with a contingent in favor of Pringle.
Greensboro attorney and Simkins PAC head Steve Bowden spoke in favor of Simkins. He said Simkins fought to desegregate the Greensboro City Council and school board, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners and the hospitals.
"George Simkins was our Martin Luther King," Bowden said. "George Simkins has never gotten his adequate due in our community."
Gary Swing of McLeansville spoke in favor of Chrismon. Swing said the Guilford County school system built 24 schools during Chrismon's tenure, one of the largest building programs in county history. Swing said Chrismon was returning from inspecting the original Jesse Wharton School when he was killed.
Several speakers supported Coble, who has represented Guilford County in Congress for years. Speaker Cindy Farmer said Coble is the longest-serving Republican in the House, but that, "It's not about the politics. It's about the man."
Coble drew the most written public comments – 48 – of any of the candidates.
Joseph Pringle, the nephew of Wesley M. Pringle Jr., spoke in support of his uncle, saying he flew 20 P-38 missions in North Africa – the most allowed of a P-38 pilot – then, shortly before being sent home, died testing a repaired bomber that exploded after takeoff.
No one spoke in favor of Frye.
School naming votes tend to generate a welter of motions, and picking a name for the southeast area elementary school was no exception.
Longtime school board member Kris Cooke was first out of the gate, making a motion to name the school for Coble, whose appeal she said crossed party lines. Cooke is the chairman of the school board's Legislative Committee, which tries to convince state and federal legislators to do what the school board wants – and said she was influenced by a visit to Washington during which Coble rolled out the red carpet for the National School Boards Association. School board member Ed Price seconded the motion.
School board member Amos Quick made a substitute motion to name the school for Simkins. He praised Coble but said, "Guilford County would not be Guilford County would it not be for the life and legacy of Dr. Simkins."
School board member Nancy Routh, a longtime teacher and principal, said she had a hard time with the decision because she knew many of the candidates. She said she knew Utley when he was principal of Nathanael Greene School, had a church connection with the Pringle family and worked through desegregation, and so respected Simkins. She said she worries less about the name that is on a school than what goes on inside. She said, "Naming of schools has never bothered me as much as it has some people."
School board member Sandra Alexander praised Coble as a "gracious, honorable gentleman," but supported Simkins.
"He's our Martin Luther King," she said. "And he also changed the course of history in the Untied States."
School board member Darlene Garrett said nice things about all the candidates, but said that without Pringle, "we might be speaking German." She made a substitute to Quick's substitute motion to name the school "Simkins-Pringle Elementary." School board Chairman Alan Duncan seconded the motion.
The school board set a problematic dual-naming precedent in 2010, when it named its new school for students with disabilities in Jamestown, the western equivalent to Gateway Education Center, with the unwieldy moniker "Meredith Leigh Haynes-Bennie Lee Inman Education Center," or Haynes-Inman, for short....continued on page 2