The Asheville City Schools system faces tough decisions for the next fiscal year. After Superintendent Gene Freeman clashed with the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners during a budget presentation on May 11, County Manager Avril Pinder proposed a budget on May 18 that would give the district over $2.1 million less than Freeman had requested. To balance the books, school administrators have said that cuts to personnel spending are on the way, potentially including reductions in the local supplement paid to ACS teachers and staff on top of their state-mandated salaries.
But specifics on how the system spends its local allocation (at over $5,800 per student, the second-highest in North Carolina) and its plans to reduce costs have been hard to come by — and may have been concealed in violation of North Carolina open meetings law when the Asheville City Board of Education held a special closed session meeting on May 18. Board members met with Freeman, Assistant Superintendent Mark Dickerson and Executive Director of Finance Georgia Harvey to discuss unspecified personnel matters out of the public eye.
In a May 17 message to Xpress, board member Jacquelyn Carr McHargue said that meeting would not involve general discussion of hiring freezes or budget cuts. But in May 18 remarks to the Citizen Times, she appeared to contradict her earlier statement: “We’re looking at all of our staffing and needs and everything within particularly [the Asheville Primary School] and all of our schools to get a picture of where we all are now and what anything in the future could look like,” she was quoted as saying about the closed session.
“Sure sounds to me like an open meetings violation,” said Amanda Martin, attorney for the N.C. Press Association, when asked to comment on McHargue’s characterization. “The only [personnel-related] justification for closed session is to discuss particular employees. The law is clear — it says it right there in the open meetings law — that general discussions must be had in open session.”
Xpress has asked the school system for the complete minutes from the May 18 meeting, as well as all notes taken and messages exchanged by its participants. “With the assistance of counsel, during a closed session, the board discusses the topics that are permissible under the open meetings law. The public portion of any minutes can be reviewed after the minutes are prepared and adopted by the board. Minutes are typically prepared and adopted by the board the following month,” wrote spokesperson Ashley-Michelle Thublin in response to the inquiry.
The school system has previously pushed back against requests for information about other aspects of its finances. Thublin claimed that the sources of funding for the district’s central office employees were confidential, and Harvey transmitted budget information as a view-only file rather than in an editable spreadsheet format that would allow further analysis.
Xpress obtained those documents and data after repeated inquiries that referenced state public records law. The information answered some questions raised by parents and officials about the system’s use of local funds versus state and federal monies. For example, Xpress’ analysis shows that ACS supports nearly $1.9 million of over $2.9 million in central office payroll using local money, representing roughly 7.2% of its local funding allocation in fiscal year 2020-21.
Updated at 12:57 p.m. to include a response from Asheville City Schools