Buncombe advances school district consolidation study

FINANCIERS: The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners is the managing entity for a state-mandated school district consolidation study, which is scheduled to begin in April, after the board chooses a vendor to conduct the study. Photo by Greg Parlier

While one local public school district redraws its district lines and the other considers merging its two middle schools, Buncombe County is moving forward with a study to explore consolidation of the two districts.

In March, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners will choose one of seven vendors that applied to conduct the study, which is scheduled to begin in April, said Rachael Nygaard, director of strategic partnerships for Buncombe County.

The Asheville City Board of Education and the Buncombe County Board of Education must report findings and recommendations from the study to the N.C. General Assembly by February 2025 to comply with a state law passed in September.

The law requires the two districts to conduct a joint feasibility study with Buncombe County leading and funding the project.

Commission Chair Brownie Newman said that while the consolidation question isn’t all about money, he expects the study to answer some questions in the community about the financial cost of running two districts with two administrations.

“We all know that educators need to be paid more. There’s a big need for more investment there. So to the extent that a single unified system might be a more efficient way, administratively, of operating schools is sort of one of the arguments for taking a look at this,” he said.

The selected vendor will review a number of factors in each district, including student enrollment, policies, procedures, student well-being, personnel, operations and facilities, Nygaard said. The vendor will identify significant similarities and differences between the two districts and include potential short- and long-term effects of consolidation in its report.

The study will include stakeholder and community engagement, she added.

Commissioner Amanda Edwards stressed that the consolidation study is not just about the county potentially saving money.

“Finances are important, but equally as important is what is best for all of the kids and professionals in both Asheville City and Buncombe County schools. So when they’re looking at student well-being and how a potential merger would impact our students, do you have any sense of how they will actually dig in to gauge that?” Edwards asked. Edwards’ husband, Derek Edwards, is the principal of Asheville High School.

Nygaard said she is looking for a “combination of approaches that will take into consideration those hard-to-measure attributes like well-being,” including reviewing student health assessment and how many students participate in various programs as indicators.

Commissioner Al Whitesides says he supports the study because he is increasingly concerned about shrinking enrollment in local public schools and the well-documented opportunity gap between Black students and their white peers in Asheville City Schools.

“It’s time for somebody to speak up. You know, I know that a lot of people don’t like it. But really, I don’t give a care, because it’s time for us to tell it like it is. And it’s time for us as a community to look out for all our kids. We only take care of some of the privileged few, but the majority of our kids are not being taken care of,” he said.

This is not the first time the county has talked about merging the school districts. It was discussed in the 1970s but never formally considered, according to Whitesides, who previously served on the Asheville City Board of Education.

A nine-member project team — with three members each from ACS, BCS and Buncombe County — is reviewing vendor applications against the study’s philosophy, approach and timeline. The vendor will present findings to both school boards and the county commission in December or next January, Nygaard said.

Tunnel Road rezoning request approved

After one public commenter spurred discussion on the philosophy of rezoning property along commercial corridors, the Board of Commissioners voted 4-0 to change a 1-acre parcel on Tunnel Road from residential to employment zoning. Commissioners Parker Sloan, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Martin Moore were absent.

The property at 1700 Tunnel Road was zoned R-2, a residential designation with smaller setbacks and stricter height requirements than the new employment zone, which is one of the most lenient commercial designations, allowing a building up to 90 feet high.

Owner Marc Wright said he planned to build something much smaller, about 25 feet high but didn’t provide specific plans.

Neighbor Alexis Gault, who operates a small property rental business on parcels that are zoned R-2, said she was worried about what type of business could move in.

“It can be a strip club, it can be a factory, it can be very loud, it could attract disreputable people to the area,” she said.

The employment designation is typically used for office uses, industrial uses, storage and warehousing, and wholesale trade, according to the county’s zoning ordinance.

Newman said it would make more sense to apply a more restrictive commercial zoning to the property since it was bordered by residential properties and was in a mixed-use area.

Haylee Madfis, a planner in the county Planning Department, said employment was the only zone available to planners because the county typically avoids spot zoning — rezoning property on an island, unattached from similar zoning designations — because it can be subject to litigation. There are no other commercial zones adjacent to the parcel in question, Madfis said.

Newman said it was difficult to vote against requests like this because it would be unfair to tell the property owner he could only maintain it as a residential property right on Tunnel Road, but it’s frustrating that a more restrictive commercial zone isn’t available when the property so closely borders residential areas.

Madfis said some of these residential properties existed before the county developed countywide zoning in 2009, and the will of the County Commission at the time was to give properties actively used as residences a residential zoning designation.


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