Asheville Board of Ed hires PR consultant, details superintendent process

Veronika Gunter at an Asheville City Schools meeting
PUT THE BEST SPIN ON IT: Consultant Veronika Gunter, left, will help Asheville City Schools staff and board members navigate communications and public relations as the district searches for its third superintendent since 2013. Photo by Virginia Daffron

The Asheville City Board of Education is fighting fires on multiple fronts. The city school system has vacancies in its superintendent and finance director positions, as well as the state’s worst disparities in academic achievement and discipline between white and black students. This month, the system learned it must reallocate 15% of its special education funding due to disproportional rates of suspension among African American students with disabilities.

At a special called session on June 27, members of the board grappled with these and other issues. Among the board’s actions was a vote to hire a consultant to “manage gaps between message, perceptions, actions and media coverage and anticipate needs,” according to a letter addressed to board Chair Shaunda Sandford from local political campaign manager and prior state Senate candidate Veronika Gunter. “As a result, [Asheville City Schools] would experience measurable improvement in its ability to relate to people inside and outside ACS and to serve students.”

Gunter will “create and lead the implementation of a public relations strategy that takes into account the public perception and community dynamics, leverages existing resources and is remarkable for being clearly and consistently communicated,” according to a draft independent contractor agreement. She will charge $65 per hour for a maximum of 20 hours a week to provide those services, with monthly charges not to exceed $6,500 and the total contract value capped at $39,000.

Describing her proposed work as a “capacity-building offer,” Gunter clarified the nature of the consulting role. “I‘m here to coach. The coach does not score the goals. The coach does not win,” she said. “Your players will do that.”

Board member James Carter, who was appointed in March, pressed Gunter on the system’s need for her services. “We’ve already put out a survey to the community and the teachers,” he said. “Why do we need you?”

Gunter responded that, if the board was satisfied with the results of its 2017 superintendent hiring process — which resulted in the appointment of Denise Patterson, who resigned on June 12 citing unspecified medical reasons after less than two years in the job — “then I don’t think you need me.” 

Teachers and parents, however, don’t feel heard by the system, Gunter said. 

“You have people who have been contributing all that they can in their teaching role, and you have parents who are giving it their best shot, being the best parent they can be. And we have community members who want to help you problem-solve. We’ve got to get people together, and now is a good time to do that by listening and taking action in the ways that you’re comfortable,” Gunter explained.

Those frank remarks may have been offered in a spirit of tough love, since Gunter helped two members of the board retain their positions during Asheville City Council’s March appointment process. She was instrumental in assembling a petition for the reappointment of Sandford and Vice Chair Martha Geitner to new four-year terms in March.

Carter also asked about Gunter’s compensation. “I mean, $1,300 a week is a little pricey if you did 20 hours a week every week,” he said. 

“It will be more than 20 hours a week, but that is the maximum that I would charge for,” Gunter responded. She offered to update board members on her progress at each board meeting as the contract continues, as well as provide information on her actual number of hours worked.

Reached after the meeting, Carter said the additional information Gunter provided satisfied his concerns. The board voted unanimously in support of the contract; member Pat Griffin was absent from the meeting.

Superintendent search

Board attorney Chris Campbell — whose Asheville law firm Campbell Shatley will support the search for the district’s next leader — updated board members on the proposed timeline for that effort.

Asheville City Schools is collecting public input on the new superintendent through an online survey, which will close on Sunday, July 28. According to spokesperson Ashley-Michelle Thublin, additional surveys for staff members and students are also being developed with Gunter’s assistance.

Campbell presented a draft position description and application form, final versions of which he said would be posted on the district’s superintendent search web page and nationally by Monday, July 1.

Community forums will be held on the following dates:

  • Thursday, Aug. 1, at Asheville Middle School
  • Wednesday, Aug. 7, at Ira B. Jones Elementary School
  • Monday, Aug. 12, at Montford North Star Academy
  • Thursday, Aug. 22, at the Arthur R. Edington Education and Career Center
  • Monday, Aug. 26, at Hall Fletcher Elementary School
  • Thursday, Aug. 29, at the North Asheville Public Library

The deadline for candidates to submit applications is 5 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 16. Finalist selection is tentatively scheduled for late September, with interviews to occur in October and contract negotiations in November.

“It is our strong opinion that when you say that the applicants have to be public and have to go through some kind of a public process, you lose applicants and you lose good applicants,” Campbell told the board. “[A confidential process] is the best way to do it, because your job as board members is to find the best person for superintendent based on the needs of the district and based on the input from the community.” 

Campbell also cautioned that the chosen candidate might not want to leave his or her current district midyear and advised members not to “get caught up in the start date.” Thus, a new superintendent may not begin work in Asheville until as late as July 1, 2020. 

In that case, Campbell advised, the board could negotiate an extension of the contract it expects to sign with Bobbie Short, who is likely to serve as interim superintendent beginning in July and continuing through the first part of the 2019-20 school year. Short has twice served in the interim role before, following the departures of former Superintendents Allen Johnson in 2013 and Pamela Baldwin in March 2017. She was superintendent of Watauga County Schools from 2003 to 2008 and before that held teaching and administration positions in the Buncombe County Public Schools.

Alternately, Campbell said, the board could again tap Assistant Superintendents Mark Dickerson and Terrence McAllister, who are currently sharing the superintendent’s responsibilities.

‘Skills, qualifications, characteristics’

“The goal of our 2019 superintendent search is to select the best long-term fit for our students, our staff members, our families and our community at large,” said Thublin. “A vital part of this transition process will be engaging with our stakeholders and keeping them informed.”

The online public survey, Gunter said, aims to solicit honest and actionable feedback, as well as reach community members with a range of educational backgrounds and levels of language proficiency.

Because the survey will close before the first community forum, Thublin said, responses will inform the public events, allowing discussions to “dive deeper and find out what sort of skills, qualifications, characteristics our community wants to see in our next educational leader.” 

A student-specific survey is also under development and will be made available to ACS pupils after school begins in the fall, Thublin said.

District staff and faculty will receive a survey that includes the same questions as the community version, plus “a few questions that only a staff member of Asheville City Schools, who has an inner working of district goings-on, would be able to answer,” Thublin said.

The draft staff survey notes, “Please understand that all survey results and comments are anonymous but not confidential. In other words, no one will know who submitted a particular comment, but the results will eventually be released to the public with redacted references to specific individuals.”

“We’re not having a separate forum just for our staff,” Thublin added. “We really want them to be part of the community input forum.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, several local teachers have told Xpress in recent months that they fear sharing their perspectives on district issues could jeopardize their employment and careers.

Drafted SPT Position Description by Daniel Walton on Scribd

Draft Staff Survey – Asheville City Board of Education Superintendent Search by Daniel Walton on Scribd

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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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2 thoughts on “Asheville Board of Ed hires PR consultant, details superintendent process

  1. Enlightened Enigma

    hey Veronica…you’re working for a heinous unnecessary operation. Make them consolidate…then you will have earned your money…until then be ashamed of your ACS connection…

  2. Enlightened Enigma

    Thublin Dickerson and McAllister…all unnecessary shlubs at ACS…all BS all the time…

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