The Asheville City Board of Education doesn’t just have new members — as of April 26, the governing body of Asheville City Schools has new leaders. At its first meeting since the March 23 appointments of James Carter, Jacquelyn Carr McHargue and Peyton O’Conner by Asheville City Council, the school board’s members chose Carter as chair and McHargue as vice chair in a pair of split decisions.
Carter, first appointed to the board in 2019 to fill the term of member James Lee following his move to a new city, received support from McHargue and O’Conner, both of whom are first-term members. The same bloc also supported McHargue for vice chair, with Shaunda Sandford and Martha Geitner voting against both picks.
Sandford, the board’s previous chair, had nominated O’Conner to fill her role with the backing of Geitner, the previous vice chair. But O’Conner demurred at the suggestion and instead nominated Carter, explaining, “I’m a little bit scared about my rookie-ism on the board at this point.”
Although school board officers usually serve for four-year terms, Carter and McHargue may see their time cut short due to action at the N.C. General Assembly. House Bill 400, jointly sponsored by Reps. John Ager, Susan Fisher and Brian Turner of Buncombe County, would create an all-elected school board with seven members instead of the current five-member board appointed by Asheville City Council.
If that bill becomes law, all seven board seats would be up for a nonpartisan primary and election in November 2022. The four candidates receiving the most votes would serve a four-year term, while the bottom three candidates would serve a two-year term before facing reelection in 2024.
Asheville is currently one of only two cities in North Carolina that appoints its school board. This year, the process drew substantial criticism from Council members and the Asheville City Association of Educators over concerns that input from teachers and the community wasn’t considered. On March 9, Council voted to request that the state legislature change the board’s makeup.
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As part of its consent agenda, the board passed a resolution opposing three pieces of state legislation that members said would unfairly target transgender students. The three bills — House Bill 358, Senate Bill 514 and Senate Bill 515, all sponsored by Republican lawmakers — would respectively ban transgender girls from playing on boys’ teams, prohibit certain gender-related medical treatments for minors and allow health care providers to refuse care based on their “religious, moral or ethical beliefs.”
Superintendent Gene Freeman thanked O’Conner, who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, for bringing the bills to the school system’s attention. “Governors are approving this type of treatment for children in terms of not allowing them to be who they are authentically,” he said. “We are a place, in Asheville City Schools, that is accepting of everyone to be who you wish to be, and that’s good enough for us.”
Freeman also floated the idea of challenging the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s policy on transgender sports participation. According to the NCHSAA, students must compete on the team matching their birth certificate’s gender unless they provide detailed documents and submit to a psychological evaluation.
“Why don’t we sue them? Get the [American Civil Liberties Union] involved in it?” Freeman said. “I worry about having so many rules that point directly to transgender kids and point them out.”
Board members, however, didn’t seem eager to take legal action. While O’Conner characterized the NCHSAA’s policies as unnecessary gatekeeping and “very offensive to transgender people,” they said challenging the rules could create even more discomfort for students and lead to “a media circus.”
ACS spokesperson Ashley-Michelle Thublin declined to share information regarding how many transgender students are currently served by the system and participate on its athletic teams. According to North Carolina Health News, fewer than 10 transgender students across the state have applied to play on teams consistent with their gender identity since 2019.