Gene Freeman, the superintendent of Asheville City Schools, was unequivocal in his remarks during a Feb. 1 meeting of the Asheville City Board of Education. “There has been no discussion of selling the building. The board has given me a direction to find out what we can do with the building. So there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” he said, in reference to Asheville Primary School’s West Asheville campus.
Freeman was equally unequivocal in his remarks during a Dec. 7 work session of the same board: “I’m recommending that we close the APS building and that we sell it.” The board then unanimously voted during a special called meeting on Dec. 14 to give “approval to explore selling the Asheville Primary campus.”
“From my point of view, and from a budgetary point of view, we don’t need this building,” Freeman added prior to the Dec. 14 vote. “This is not the first time this has been brought up, and we need to make a move to do something with this building.”
The fate of the school — and the contradictory statements of ACS leaders — have attracted intense community interest in recent months, with a Change.org petition to “Save Asheville Primary School” collecting nearly 2,600 signatures as of press time. Over 170 people tuned in to the Zoom stream of the Feb. 1 meeting, with many waiting nearly two hours to offer public comment on the proposed sale and 50 submitting written comments via email.
Several of those commenters criticized the school system for a lack of transparency around its decisions. Although ACS spokesperson Ashley-Michelle Thublin claimed in a Jan. 5 email that the school community had been invited to three town halls about the campus and its needs, Lara Lustig said those meetings had provided little information and didn’t allow parents or teachers to have their concerns addressed.
“The information I got during the work session today is probably 200% more information than, as a parent, I’ve had so far, and not for lack of trying,” said Lustig, mother to two APS students. “I really have tried to communicate with y’all.”
And Brooke Heaton, father to a student at Isaac Dickson Elementary School, said system officials had talked up the many improvements made to the APS building when he toured the facility in the spring of 2020 — a stark contrast from the “deep disrepair” they outlined when considering its sale. “It was rather jaw-dropping to hear the school described in such terms last December,” he explained.
The system has been inconsistent in describing the cost of needed repairs to the APS campus. On Dec. 14, Freeman told the board that expenses would run approximately $9 million; the Jan. 5 email from Thublin instead listed a figure of roughly $6 million “to bring the building up to minimum standards.”
Xpress has also experienced delays in obtaining basic records of the school system’s discussions. Although the announcement for the Dec. 14 meeting stated that a recording would be made available on the ACS Facebook page after its conclusion, no such video had been posted to that page as of press time. The minutes of the Dec. 7 work session and regular meeting and Dec. 14 special meeting, all of which were approved by the board on Feb. 1 and requested by Xpress on Feb. 2, were not made publicly available until Feb. 5.
In August, Xpress and Carolina Public Press sent a joint request to Freeman and Shaunda Sandford, chair of the school board, asking for board meetings to be conducted, recorded and shared according to best practices for transparency outlined by the UNC School of Government. Neither school official offered a response or acknowledgement of receipt.
As previously reported by Xpress, the potential school sale comes as ACS faces a challenging fiscal situation for the next fiscal year. (See “Failing arithmetic,” Jan. 27.) According to a report by Hurd Isenhour Lopes, a Hickory-based consulting firm, presented to the school board on Feb. 1, the district should “delay nonessential purchases and hiring for the remainder of the year and prepare for cuts to the 2021-2022 budget.”
Edited at 2:27 p.m. on Feb. 8 to reflect correct school attendance information for Brooke Heaton’s child.