Like many Asheville parents, Sophie Mullinax loved sending her 4-year-old, Hazel Mullinax-Wilson, to the Montessori program at Asheville Primary School. When the Asheville City Board of Education voted in December to shut the school permanently after the 2021-22 academic year, her family was disappointed. But they were pleased to receive an email May 4 saying the preschool at Lucy S. Herring Elementary School had a spot open for Hazel.
On May 10, Mullinax received another email from Asheville City Schools. Beginning in September, the message read, ACS preschool tuition for full-day care (7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.) would increase from the 2021-22 monthly rate of $700 per month to $900 — nearly 29%. (At Asheville Primary School, tuition for full-day care was $775 per month during the 2021-22 school year; Herring and three other ACS preschools charged $700 per month for full-day care.)
The email also said the ACS program would no longer provide free breakfast or lunch for children who don’t qualify for federal meal support and told parents to expect spending $75 per month on food.
“It was a bit of a shock to have such a drastic increase and a reduction in the services provided,” Mullinax tells Xpress.
In the May 10 email to parents announcing the tuition increase, preschool program director Susanna Smith wrote, “The cost of care for early childhood education increases each year, and Asheville City Schools continues to assess the preschool program budget and the impact it has on the overall Asheville City Schools budget.” She also said the last tuition increase occurred in 2018, when costs rose $25.
ACS declined to make Smith available for further comment. The system also did not grant requests for comment from Sarah Cain, director of elementary education; Melissa Hedt, deputy superintendent of accountability and instruction; or James Carter, chair of the Asheville City Board of Education.
In response to an Xpress request for an interview on the tuition hike, former ACS spokesperson Ashley-Michelle Thublin responded by email June 2. “Due to a variety of factors, the ACS budget is no longer able to support spending the large amount of local funding that we have spent on our preschool program in previous years,” she wrote, while also noting “the cost of supplies and materials has consistently increased across the board.” (Thublin left ACS June 10.)
Mullinax tells Xpress she is employed 30 hours a week and her partner is employed full time. “I feel lucky to be able to afford that [tuition] increase, although that’ll put our total child care costs over $2,000 a month — which is more than our mortgage,” she explains. Their 1-year-old daughter, June, attends a private day care with $1,000 monthly tuition.
She estimates her family will spend about $25,000 on child care for the 2022-23 school year. “That’s more than some families can afford, especially if they have multiple kids,” she says.
Thublin’s response mentions neither the ACS system’s dwindling fund balance nor tensions between school leaders and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. Both may have played a role in the preschool price hike.
In a March 30 letter to commissioners, school board Chair Carter and three other board members wrote that “past superintendents and school boards have voted to use local dollars intended to support K-12 students for [prekindergarten] students.” They noted that the system had used its cash reserves to pay for recurring staff and service expenses over the past several years; to sustain similar spending levels in fiscal year 2022-23, they continued, would require more support from the county.
ACS leaders then asked commissioners at a May 10 budget work session to approve a 13% increase in the supplemental tax assessed on property within the school district, a move projected to raise over $1.48 million. The system also asked for a $600,000 allocation to support pre-K specifically. But Buncombe board members, who had asked ACS to prepare a cost-reduction plan before the work session, did not support either request.
“We don’t feel like solving all of the challenges facing the city schools should be done simply by raising taxes on the families who live in Asheville,” explained board Chair Brownie Newman. “In the absence of seeing different ideas for how we can address these issues … just raising the property tax rate should not be our only go-to solution.”
And Commissioner Al Whitesides, who at a 2021 budget work session accused ACS Superintendent Gene Freeman of bringing “mayhem to the school system,” exhorted the system’s leaders to make tough choices about spending. “You all cannot keep kicking the can down the road,” Whitesides said. “It’s a crying shame now, where we are with our city school system.”
(Freeman, who was hired in 2019, announced his retirement from ACS April 20 and stated an intention to leave at the end of November. On June 10, Carter announced Freeman would begin retirement June 15. His “contract buy-out from an undesignated local fund balance” is $78,500, plus $10,903.32 for unused vacation leave through November and $4,611.80 for medical, dental and vision insurance premiums through COBRA through December, according to a press release.)
Apples to apples?
Comparisons among preschools and pre-K programs can be difficult, with operating hours, the ages of participants and food service varying wildly. But ACS maintains its new preschool prices are in line with those of other local programs.
“The district reviewed tuition rates at five private child care centers in the city of Asheville” before making the change, Thublin wrote. The initial email to parents announcing the tuition increase said that the ACS preschool program and the schools used to calculate the tuition increase were all “5-star private child care centers,” denoting the highest level of care licensed by the N.C. Division of Child Development and Early Education.
“The Asheville City Schools preschool program will continue to maintain one of the lowest tuition rates within city limits,” Thublin wrote to Xpress. “The ACS Preschool Committee reviewed the calculations, which took place prior to the announcement about the change to our pricing structure.”
No information about the ACS Preschool Committee is available on the system’s website. Thublin did not respond to an email asking for clarification about the committee’s members.
Erik Moellering, a parent with a child attending ACS preschool, shared with Xpress a May 10 email from Smith, the preschool program director, explaining that the system’s benchmarks were the YWCA of Asheville Early Learning Program, Asheville Jewish Community Center Shalom Children’s Program, Verner Center for Early Learning, Irene Wortham Center Early Learning Center and Asheville Regent Park Early Childhood Development Center.
Based on the tuition fees Xpress was able to confirm, those five private preschool programs do charge slightly higher tuition rates than ACS. However, those other programs include meals, swimming lessons or other benefits.
The YWCA’s monthly tuition for its full-day (8 a.m.-5:30 p.m.) pre-K for 4-year-olds is $926, according to the YWCA website. That tuition includes two meals, a snack, art instruction and swim lessons.
Tuition at Verner Center for Early Learning East in Swanannoa is $1,034 per month and includes two meals, a snack, parenting workshops and voluntary health and development screenings. Regent’s 2021-22 tuition for full-day (7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.) care is $975; lunch and snacks are provided, according to the program’s parent handbook.
The JCC’s tuition for a full day of care for 3- to 5-year-olds during the 2022-23 school year is $1,020 per month, according to Shalom Children’s Center rates posted online. Parents must provide lunch and two snacks for their child daily, the 2022-23 program handbook states. However, children in the JCC program also use the building’s aquatics facility for swimming.
Mullinax says she’s pleased with the quality of the education her daughter Hazel has received. Her family will probably take the spot offered at Herring. Still, the monthly $200 increase in tuition and food costs gave them pause.
“I understand Asheville City Schools is dealing with all sorts of budgetary issues,” Mullinax says. “But the disinvestment in pre-K — when high-quality and affordable pre-K is one of the determinants of future success and wellbeing — [it] makes me sad this is happening in our city.”
And Moellering says he’s frustrated at a lack of clarity around the system’s decision. “The whole constellation of it all, especially during this economic climate, is maddening,” he says.