For anyone on social media, the flurry of back-to-school photos earlier this month was hard to miss. Parents, teachers and students alike marked the unofficial end of summer and began to settle into another academic year.
Perhaps less obvious — but no less important — was another set of scholastic developments. This year, the start of school coincided with the ramping up of campaign season for Asheville and Buncombe County school board candidates.
School board elections can slip under the radar for some voters, especially those without children, says Pat Bryant. He’s served as the Erwin District representative on the Buncombe County Board of Education for the last 16 years.
Bryant, an independent, is retiring from the nonpartisan board, saying the body is ready for fresh voices. Decisions made by those in charge of local schools, he continues, can reverberate throughout the community, with consequences that often reach beyond the world of education.
“Whether it’s folks wanting to start a business or people moving here just to try and find work or raise a family, one of the questions at the top of their list is, ‘What are your public schools like?’” Bryant explains. “And so having a quality public school system and a quality school board is important to all of us, whether we have kids currently in schools or not.”
While both Asheville City Schools and Buncombe County Schools are experiencing many issues common to school systems across the country — funding gaps, staffing shortages and battles over curriculum, to name a few — both local districts are also contending with their own unique challenges and internal dynamics.
Xpress takes stock of the current school boards and examines what lies ahead for their future representatives.
Power to the people
One of the biggest changes to the Asheville district will be the board election itself. Legislation passed by the N.C. General Assembly in November will let district voters choose board members for the first time; previously, all members were appointed by Asheville City Council. (ACS had been one of only two districts in the state to have an appointed school board, the other being Thomasville City Schools in Davidson County.)
The law will also expand the number of seats on the Asheville City Board of Education from five to seven. The board will remain nonpartisan; terms will continue to be four years, with members limited to serving two terms. Four members will be elected this cycle as three appointed members finish out their terms, with those three seats up for grabs in 2024.
According to the city of Asheville, the school board is responsible for creating “the vision for education in the district” by establishing goals and the overall tone for public schools. The change to an elected board could incentivize its members to make that vision more responsive to the community, says Daniel Withrow, an Asheville City Schools elementary school teacher of 16 years and president of the Asheville City Association of Educators.
“Current [school board members] are accountable to the Council that appoints them, whereas when you have an elected school board, they’re accountable to the general public,” Withrow says. “Just the sheer fact of running for the school board is going to require listening to a lot of parents, a lot of staff and a lot of community members and finding out firsthand what their concerns are.”
Eight candidates are vying for the four available seats: Pepi Acebo, president of the Montford North Star Academy Parent Teacher Organization; former Asheville City Schools teacher Liza English-Kelly; youth movement instructor Miri Massachi; attorney Amy Ray; housing counselor and OnTrack WNC program coordinator Rebecca Strimer; attorney Sarah Thornburg; former U.S. Marine and JROTC instructor Jesse J. Warren; and William Young Jr., a longtime employee of the Asheville City School system and father of former Asheville City Council member Keith Young.
(Current members Martha Geitner and Shaunda Sandford, whose terms expire this year, are not in the race. George Sieburg, Peyton O’Conner and board Chair James Carter will serve until the next election in 2024.)
The candidates have thus far only participated in one public forum, held in April. Coverage of that event is available at avl.mx/bir, and candidate responses to the Xpress primary voter guide are available at avl.mx/bip.
Whoever is elected to the Asheville school board will confront a weighty first term. The new members will be responsible for selecting a new superintendent following the abrupt June 15 departure of Gene Freeman, more than five months before his previously announced November retirement. The board had hired Freeman in December 2019, despite concerns regarding his previous tenure as superintendent of a Pennsylvania school district.
The vacancy left by Freeman marks the latest example of instability within the school system, which has hired five superintendents over the last 10 years. According to a report by WLOS, ACS has spent more than $405,000 on buyouts and search efforts for its last four superintendents alone.
That frustrates Brooke Heaton, father of a rising ACS kindergartner. He says that dysfunctional leadership, coupled with a lack of transparency from the school board, are among his top concerns as he prepares to vote in the board’s first election.
Heaton adds that parents have consistently received what he says he says are mixed messages from the school board and ACS administrators, most recently concerning the closure of Asheville Primary School, the city’s only public Montessori school, in December.“It seemed like the entire closure of Asheville Primary was based around a constantly changing series of justifications,” he says.
Asheville’s new school board will also need to contend with a wave of resignations from teachers and other staff members, who cite low pay and increased costs of living as reasons for leaving. Teacher salaries in North Carolina, which start at $37,000 and top out at $65,800, are set by state government; that pay range places the state 34th among U.S. education systems according to the National Education Association, a national labor union representing public school teachers and other support personnel.
According to ACS spokesperson Dillon Huffman, the district has had 398 resignations between February 2020 and Aug. 30. Of those resignations, 43 occurred during the 2022-23 school year. As of Aug. 30, the district had 28 vacancies out of roughly 715 positions.
Withrow says that a crucial responsibility of the incoming school board is to convince both local and state governments that staff needs aren’t being met. Retention of teachers and other staff members, he says, is critical to maintaining the district.
Red team, blue team
Meanwhile, the Buncombe County Board of Education is gearing up for its own set of elections. The county board oversees the much larger Buncombe County Schools student population — roughly 22,300 students across 45 schools, compared with about 4,500 students across nine schools for ACS.
The Buncombe board consists of seven members, with six representing individual districts within the school system and one serving as an at-large representative. (All voters served by BCS vote for all seats.) Members serve four-year terms with no term limits.
Although the board’s elections are ostensibly nonpartisan, this year’s contests are breaking down along clear political lines. Two candidates are running for each of three open positions — the Erwin District seat held by Bryant, the Enka District seat held by Democrat Judy Lewis and the Reynolds District seat held by Democrat Cindy McMahon — and in each case, one is a Democrat and the other a Republican.
Lewis, the only incumbent to seek reelection, is running against Republican home-school educator Kim Poteat. In the Erwin district, Democratic substitute teacher Kim Plemmons faces Republican WNC native and father Kenneth Greg Parks, while in the Reynolds district, Democratic parent and Fairview Elementary PTA President Rob Elliot faces off against Asheville native and mother Sara Disher Ratliff. All candidates have the endorsement of their respective political parties.
In contrast, all ACS board candidates are either unaffiliated or registered Democrats. The county Democratic Party has not endorsed any candidates in that race.
BCS board members elected this fall will join a body that has seen its own share of controversy in recent months. The summer of 2021, saw several contentious school board meetings, with attendees particularly concerned about curriculum and pandemic-related measures.
During one such meeting in June 2021, 13 members of the public accused the Buncombe school board of “teaching racism” and engaging in a “demonic campaign” of indoctrinating students. Many claimed the district was teaching critical race theory; subsequent Xpress reporting (avl.mx/c0s) did not find any such teaching in county schools.
The system’s approaches to COVID-19 also caused some parents and other members of the public to lash out against the school board. The issue reached a fever pitch during an Aug. 5, 2021 meeting in which the board voted in favor of requiring face coverings in schools in response to rising infection rates.
Several commenters spoke out against the decision, including Republican U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn. “You have muzzled their voices, just as you have muzzled our children,” Cawthorn told the board. A group of roughly 30 people who opposed the mask mandate proceeded to “overthrow” the school board and instate themselves into the positions. (That action carried no legal weight but was covered by the Washington Post and other national media.)
As ideological divisions within the district continue to play out, BCS also continues to grapple with long-standing issues of funding and staffing shortages. Shanna Peele, a special education teacher who serves as the president of the Buncombe County Association of Educators, says burnout and low wages are causing educators and school staff to leave not only the district, but also education altogether.
Buncombe County Commissioner Amanda Edwards recently called for a statewide teacher walkout as a means of addressing the issue. “With over 6,000 vacancies [across the state], there is no way anyone can justify firing teachers for walking out,” Edwards wrote in an Aug.16 Facebook comment. “With that many vacancies and a massive rainy day fund, there is a huge opportunity to get what is deserved.”
In a joint statement, BCAE and ACAE said they would not support a strike at this time. However, Peele says the education advocacy groups will continue to push for change in other ways.
“The main message that we want to get across is that our General Assembly has very clearly been holding our money hostage for public schools,” Peele says. “It’s time for our General Assembly to fulfill their constitutional duty for our students, and fund our public schools fully so that our students can get the education that they deserve.”
The road ahead
As Election Day inches closer, Peele predicts that voters will be paying attention to school board races. “I feel like parents are feeling the same amount of pressure that our educators are feeling,” she says, citing ongoing inflation and the lingering effects of the pandemic. “Many of us are working two or three jobs just to get by and put food on the table. And so I think because of that, people are starting to notice and pay attention to the services that their children are being provided.”
McMahon says that whoever is elected to the Buncombe County school board will need to be prepared to work with students, teachers and other board members, regardless of their party affiliation or political beliefs.
“My advice is to listen first,” she says. “School is all about learning, and that applies to the Board of Education as well.”
On the Asheville City Schools side, Withrow suggests that this year’s election has the potential for a fresh start.
“This is such a pivotal moment for our district — the combination of the first elected school board and the hiring of the new superintendent really gives voters a chance to shape the direction of our district for years to come,” Withrow says. “We really encourage people to pay attention to what’s going on, do their research and help us choose the leader and make our district the best it can be.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated on Sept. 23, to correctly identify Pat Bryant as an independent.