ACS staff, board give few answers on $90K consulting contract

Asheville High School
TALKING POINT: An agreement with Raleigh-based Forthright Advising for communications on equity efforts at Asheville High School and other city schools drew the concern of Asheville City Board of Education member Joyce Brown during a Feb. 15 meeting of the board. Photo by Virginia Daffron

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.


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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the former news editor of Mountain Xpress. His work has also appeared in Sierra, The Guardian, and Civil Eats, among other national and regional publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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7 thoughts on “ACS staff, board give few answers on $90K consulting contract

  1. Miracle

    After reviewing the contract, it only extends through the end of this school year (the termination date is May 28, 2021). I’m wondering how much they’ll find out in that time AND be able to accomplish. I also wonder why ACS is shelling out the starting annual salary of 3 teachers for 3.5 months when it’s already in a financial crisis.

    • Charles

      No kidding. Dump the superintendent to pay for this contract. Doesn’t anyone have to review and approve these kinds of expenditures?

      What is the logic of having two different schools districts (Buncombe and Asheville)? It makes no sense.

    • indy499

      Of course the two have nothing to do with each other. And, are you suggesting ACS is some paragon of efficiency?

      • WNC

        Learn to pronounce
        combine or cause to combine to form a single entity

  2. G Man

    Blah, blah, blah. One more in a long series of punches to the face of taxpayers from the school boards and teachers’ unions who all think the education system is about them and completely push the kids to the side to satisfy their own wants and desires.

    Here’s an idea: how about getting the kids back to school so we can even begin to justify still paying all of your salaries?

  3. Terry Wheeler

    It sounds like to me, more attention is suddenly being paid to what is going on in the community! Now the problem shifts the responsibility from allowing elected officials to grease the squeaky wheel and in many cases, line their own pockets… to putting the remote down and get involved!

    This may start with subscribing to this news outlet, especially if you do not always agree with its points of view! If you think you are going to get your news about Asheville through the Internet you are going to be sadly misled!

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