Forthright Advising, the Raleigh-based communications consultant listed in a nearly $90,000 contract with Asheville City Schools, defines its name as meaning “direct and outspoken; straightforward and honest.” A discussion surrounding the contract during a Feb. 15 special called meeting of the Asheville City Board of Education, however, was neither direct nor straightforward.
Signed by ACS Superintendent Gene Freeman on Feb. 5 and Chief Finance Officer Georgia Harvey on Feb. 8, the contract tasks Forthright with preparing “an announcement rollout and community engagement plan regarding the [school system’s] equitable education initiative,” as well as “ongoing communications team advising and support services.” But no member of the school board or ACS staff could explain exactly where the contract came from or how it would benefit students.
“Dr. Freeman has talked about budgetary issues,” remarked Joyce Brown, the only board member to flag an issue with the document. (See “Failing arithmetic,” Xpress, Jan. 27.) “This seems to be an extremely large contract.”
Parents and other community members had also expressed multiple concerns over the document in a Facebook Live chat running alongside the livestream of the meeting. However, the board did not permit a formal avenue for public comment.
Freeman himself was not in attendance to explain the deal, with board Chair Shaunda Sandford noting at the start of the meeting that the superintendent was feeling ill. But his lieutenants — Assistant Superintendents Shane Cassida and Mark Dickerson, both of whom were tasked with running the meeting in his stead — offered little more context.
“I don’t know a lot of details about this contract. It did not emanate out of our department,” Cassida said, before incorrectly stating that it had yet to be signed. Dickerson did not speak about the item, nor did Harvey, whose name appears on the contract.
Dillon Huffman, the only member of the school’s communications department present at the meeting, did not volunteer information about the need for consultants or how he expected them to assist his work. (Ashley-Michele Thublin, the district’s executive director of communications, is on parental leave and was not in attendance.)
Xpress was unable to reach Katie Davis, the founder of Forthright Advising, who also signed the document. But on Feb. 16, Huffman said Forthright had contacted the school system regarding Xpress’ inquiry. “We’ve engaged them in a contract to add capacity to our team and help our district with community outreach and engagement while the Board of Education considers how we continue to strive for equity for all kids in our district,” he wrote in a statement.
“We are working with the communications firm to ensure we honor the diverse voices of our community in our ongoing process to build equity in our district,” Huffman continued. “As the Board of Education makes decisions regarding future equity initiatives and options for families, this firm will assist us as needed with ensuring we hear from all stakeholders.”
Sandford hinted at some familiarity with the circumstances surrounding the contract. “This may be in relation to the meeting [Freeman] had with the City Council and [board attorney] Chris [Campbell] and everybody. I’m not sure, though,” she said, without providing further details.
However, Freeman has not publicly presented before Asheville City Council in the past several months, and no public notice has been given for a separate meeting between the superintendent and elected officials. A call to reach Sandford for further explanation on Feb. 16 went directly to a full voicemail box.
Campbell emphasized that Freeman has the unilateral power to make contracts of up to $90,000 per school policy, a limit shared by the Buncombe County school system. The Forthright contract’s do-not-exceed amount is $89,400, just under that limit.
“The superintendent has the legal authority to be able to do contracts within a certain amount and just report those to the board,” Campbell said. “It just sounds like something that y’all can have some additional conversation with when he is back and able to discuss the dollar amount.”
“I would like to do that,” Brown replied. The school board’s next regularly scheduled meeting takes place 5 p.m. Monday, March 1.