Amid soul searching over severe disparities, City Council weighs its latest school board appointments

COUGAR PRIDE: Martha Geithner, left, and Shaunda Sandford are seeking reappointment to the Asheville City Board of Education. At an information session for applicants for the three seats Asheville City Council must appoint or reappoint by April 1, current board members outlined the board's role, time commitment and challenges. Photo by Virginia Daffron

James Lee, an Asheville City Board of Education member who’s resigning his post after two years, halfway through his term, has some advice for any incoming members. His experience on the board has been largely positive, he says, and he’s only leaving because he’s taken a job out of state. But as a local African-American who’s had no illusions about the difficulties the board faces in addressing the ever-growing achievement gap among racial groups in Asheville’s public schools, he knows how to temper expectations.

“The idea that most new school board members have is that they’re going in to fix problems with the administrators and the staff,” Lee says, but it’s just not that simple.

“It’s not that you can’t introduce new ideas or encourage research into different areas,” Lee says, and he’s encouraged by the mounting chorus of voices calling for an emphasis on equity for all students, especially long-neglected minorities. “But we didn’t get to this point overnight, and we can’t turn the Titanic around overnight. This is a long-haul culture shift that has to take place within a system that’s been around for centuries.”

With Lee opting out, Asheville City Council will soon select at least one new member to serve on a board that will be compelled to turn the ship around. Two other members, Martha Geitner and board Chair Shaunda Sandford, are completing their first terms on the board and seeking reappointment. Meanwhile, in a process that will play out in the coming weeks, 11 other community members have applied to be appointed (see sidebar).

Members of the five-person board are appointed by City Council to four-year terms. The board chair is compensated $350 per month in public funds, while the other members receive $250 per month. The job entails myriad meetings and other community commitments, but the requirements to vie for a seat are simple: Candidates must live in the Asheville City Schools district, be registered to vote and not be employed in the city school system.

On Feb. 27, the applicants received a series of essay questions — addressing matters including their experience with oversight, their perspective on racial disparities in academic performance and their views on innovation and health systems in the schools — with answers submitted to City Council by March 6. At its Tuesday, March 12, meeting, Council will determine which candidates it wants to interview before its next meeting, on Tuesday, March 26, when the appointments are slated to be made official.

Some of the scheduling for this process is “subject to change,” advises Deputy City Clerk Sarah Terwilliger, depending on “how many candidates Council decides to bring in.”

Amid the relatively hurried proceedings to establish the new board membership, a long-standing question has increasingly hovered over many local conversations: Should Asheville’s school board be selected by elections rather than appointments?

There are 115 public school districts in the state, and all but two — Asheville’s and the one in the Piedmont town of Thomasville — elect their school board members, according to the N.C. School Boards Association. There were three, until recently: In 2017, the town of Lexington in Davidson County successfully lobbied the state legislature to switch to an elected board, citing “the importance of the citizens’ and parents’ ability to have a say in the election of the representatives” on their school board. (In North Carolina, such changes have to be authorized by the General Assembly.)

That’s a turn that some veteran players in Asheville’s public education community support. Kate Pett is the outgoing executive director of the Asheville City Schools Foundation, a nonprofit that buoys the system with after-school programs, grants and scholarships for students and teachers, and other initiatives. “I support electing our Board of Education and I have been saying that for over 10 years,” she says.

“This really isn’t a comment about our current Board of Education or past boards of education, it’s a reflection of my belief that our community needs to be more engaged in public education,” Pett adds. “I think an election process would engage the community in talking about the issues that are going on in our schools, and it would increase the community’s sense of ownership and engagement in our schools.”

At present, beyond appointing school board members, City Council exercises no control or authority over the board, its members or its actions, says Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, who serves as liaison to the school board and chairs the city’s boards and commissions committee. She is uncertain whether City Council has the authority to remove a school board member for cause. What’s more, the city has no budget control over the school system, and the county controls local funding for the schools. 

Lee, the outgoing board member, echoes the views of those who think that as much as the system is struggling under the current arrangement, appointing school board members is still the best way of addressing the board’s challenges. “Having an appointed body, where the community speaks to elected officials to consider individuals who have community connections, is more helpful than having the popularity and name recognition of an election process,” he maintains.

While he sees “some positives and negatives” to both approaches, Lee worries that elections would politicize the board and lead some to seek a seat only because they “have aspirations for higher political office.” At present, he asserts, “Individuals who ask to be appointed to the school board have an earnest desire to work for and build up our kids.”

With additional reporting by Virginia Daffron.



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About Jon Elliston
Former Mountain Xpress managing editor Jon Elliston is the senior editor at WNC magazine.

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9 thoughts on “Amid soul searching over severe disparities, City Council weighs its latest school board appointments

  1. Mike R.

    I’m relatively new to Asheville. What is the rationale/justification for Asheville having separate schools than Buncombe County? The rest of the state is basically county-wide systems, I believe.

    • Virginia Daffron

      Although you are right that county districts are more common in North Carolina, Asheville isn’t an extreme outlier. In addition to Asheville, there are seven other city districts with 3,000-6,000 students in the state (these numbers are for the 2017-18 school year):

      Clinton: 3,000
      Newton-Conover: 3,018
      Lexington: 3,059
      Hickory: 4,158
      Asheville: 4,421
      Asheboro: 4,608
      Kannapolis: 5,339
      Mooresville: 5,986

      • Enlightened Enigma

        …and no need for those dual districts either … Mark Johnson was supposed to be correcting this!

      • Mike R.

        Thanks for the response and insight. Was it always this way? Are the schools in Buncombe County equivalent to Asheville schools? Just wondering why we’d have two systems when one would be more efficient from taxpayer standpoint.

        • Virginia Daffron

          I’m having trouble quickly pointing you to a source that fully explores the city/county distinction, but this is an excellent overview of school desegregation in Asheville City Schools:

          The two-system structure is of long standing and was not uncommon in North Carolina public education. For example, I attended the Henderson County Public Schools, which were distinct from the Hendersonville City Schools, in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The two systems subsequently merged.

  2. Enlightened Enigma

    There is no justification for dual systems except controlling democrackkk power monger elitists who refuse to rectify these dual and segregated city county schools. Where is the equity and inclusion?

    Ask them: city council , city manager, county commissioners, county manager… ‘How many millions of taxpayer $$$ can be saved per year with an ALL ONE system?’ WHO can answer that question? Why must everyone suffer such an outrage supporting two systems???

  3. PublicSchoolsNerd

    The Asheville City School system was first established in 1887. I’m not sure why that was. There may be one reason why it is still maintained in its current state. If Buncombe County and Asheville City were merged it would pose an undue busing burden on black children living in Asheville city who would have to be bussed to integrate the county system. Buncombe County is quite a large foot print. Also, Asheville City levees a higher tax rate on real estate than the County which means that residents of Asheville City would pay a larger share than Buncombe County residents for the same service. Asheville City Schools currently offer more than Buncombe County schools in many respects: historically smaller class sizes, more honors classes at the high school level, more electives, magnate schools, more pre-schools, and and social work infrastructure to support a very large population of homeless students. Additionally, the appointed board is a necessity because not everyone in Asheville City Limits is in the Asheville City School district. In order change the foot print , they would probably have to build a few more schools. The population of the school system is already maxed. Therefore, people would be voting for school board members for schools their children do not attend. There are horror stories about people getting onto school boards just to dismantle public education from the inside. These issues are very complex. They require a lot of thoughtfulness, not just quick solutions. I’ve been in Asheville a long time and this debate keeps going round and round while the real issues continue to go unaddressed. Perhaps if we supported the school system, rather than looking for any opportunity to tear it down, we’d see the change we are hoping to see. Sounds like being on the school board is a tough, thankless job. Thanks to those who take it on.

  4. Enlightened Enigma

    BS…no problems any different than any other county with a big town in NC…CONSOLIDATE !!!

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