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.