Buncombe chooses vendor for school district consolidation study

UNFUNDED: Several members of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners expressed frustration that they were expected to pay for a school district consolidation study that was mandated by the N.C. General Assembly last fall. Ultimately, the board voted 5-1 to fund the study out of reserves. Photo by Greg Parlier

An independent firm will launch a study next month to determine the feasibility of consolidating Buncombe County’s two public school districts. The N.C. General Assembly mandated the districts study consolidating with a new law passed last fall.

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted 5-1 to pay Charlotte-based education consultants Prismatic Services about $300,000 to provide a comprehensive report, including an analysis of the risks and benefits of consolidating Asheville City Schools and Buncombe County Schools. Commissioner Al Whitesides dissented. Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara was absent.

Commissioner Terri Wells and Chair Brownie Newman questioned what they saw as a large price tag for the study.

Rachael Sawyer, director of strategic partnerships for Buncombe County, said staff found the amount to be reasonable compared with seven other proposals, which ranged from $57,000 to $1.5 million. “We were really excited about the number of on-site days, the number of hours dedicated to each phase of the project and the number of personnel brought to bear to assist on the project,” she said.

The study will be paid for out of the county’s reserves since the 2023-24 budget was passed before the N.C. General Assembly voted in a law requiring the two districts to study consolidation. Buncombe County signed on to be the lead entity of the study in October.

Prismatic Services, founded in 2007, has a network of more than 50 contracted consultants across the country and has performed 300 projects for clients in 31 states and the District of Columbia, according to Sawyer’s presentation.

Consultants are scheduled to spend 75 days on-site in 19 trips to Buncombe County over the nine-month project, according to the contract.

Commissioner Parker Sloan asked if community input would be sought to guide Prismatic’s final report.

“You’re absolutely right; the community has a right to have input as to what their schools look like,” said Prismatic President Tatia Prieto. “Are we a community that wants to have many small schools, or are we a community that wants to have one larger school? There are benefits to each side and drawbacks to each approach. But that’s neither here nor there to us as outsiders; it’s really dependent on what the community wants to do.”

Prieto added community input is often rife with emotion, as invested stakeholders have strong opinions about schools being closed or reconfigured, so that must be considered.

Newman asked what experience Prismatic has with finding cost savings from district consolidations elsewhere, particularly when merging central office staff.

Prieto, who said she focused much of her Ph.D. dissertation on economies of scale in comparing large and small school districts, said consolidations often realize less savings in administrative positions than initially anticipated. A certain number of central office staffing is needed to run a district, and when a district expands through consolidation, that usually requires more administration, leading to fewer cuts than people expect, she said.

“The research is fairly solid out there that economies of scale have been chased since the ’90s in various areas within school districts, and you may achieve some, but you don’t usually achieve as much as you think you’re going to get,” she said.

The study also will compare equity across district departments in both educational outcomes and operations, Prieto said.

If nutrition services are far superior in one school system versus the other, for example, that creates an equity issue that needs review, she said.

Whitesides voted against approving the study because he said it was an unfunded state mandate.

“We didn’t request it. The people of Buncombe County didn’t request it. So if they’re going to mandate it, why can’t they pay for it? Are we going to send them the bill?”

County Manager Avril Pinder said staff members were exploring getting money back for the study through its legislative delegation.

Newman said despite the unfunded mandate, a study will provide the community with a lot of good data to consider.

“I think it’ll spark a lot of good discussion in the community. If the legislature attempted to mandate some outcome to this that is contrary to what the public support is for the future of our school systems … I certainly believe we should fight that, 100%.

“It’s our most important priority, ensuring a good public education system. So I’m hoping that this can be a good, healthy process that eliminates this question, even though I don’t particularly like the way that it originated either,” Newman added.

Prismatic is scheduled to submit its report to the County Commission and both school boards by December. The Asheville City and Buncombe County boards of education must report to the General Assembly on the issue by February.

Buncombe begins negotiations with new trash collection firm

Despite pleas from seven WastePro employees during public comment, commissioners voted unanimously to negotiate a contract with a new trash collection firm, Houston-based FCC Environmental Services.

FCC was recommended by staff because of its focus on customer service, low staff turnover ratio, experience in transitioning to new markets, and its promise to have staff dedicated to only Buncombe County, said Dane Pedersen, Buncombe’s solid waste director.

If an agreement is reached, FCC already has committed to bringing in trucks as well, Pedersen said.

During public comment, Chip Gingles, regional vice president of WastePro, said his company has been serving Buncombe County for about 15 years and he doubts another company will be able to provide the same level of service as WastePro.

The complexity of Buncombe’s terrain and winding mountain roads is difficult to get used to, Gingles said, and WastePro’s experience and willingness to go above and beyond to serve difficult-to-reach homes shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Pedersen said he planned to come back to the board with a proposed price structure in April. WastePro’s contract is up at the end of this year.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

5 thoughts on “Buncombe chooses vendor for school district consolidation study

  1. Mike Rains

    County Commissioner Al Whitesides expresses deep opposition because the state legislature is pushing Buncombe County and Asheville to do what they’ve been incapable of doing themselves; look hard at conslidating Asheville Schools with Buncombe County schools. The funds for the study are really incidental when considering the BC budget. Get real.

    The politics in this area continually “shoots themselves in the foot” by strongly opposing anything the state proposes; even items that reasonable people think may be beneficial.

    The last major one involved the state proposing changing the Asehville City Council/Mayor election from all “at-large” to a mix of districts and at-large. Of course, Aseville leadership immediately “opposed” such a plan and likely more because it came from the state than because of the lack of merit for the concept. Virtually every other muncipality in the state uses a mix of at large and districts and seems to do quite well with this approach; however, not “special” Asheville.

    “Oppositional” behavior is detrimental in many ways. I’m not saying this region needs to “cave” for everything Raleigh wants or proposes; however, opposing something from above without considering the merits/motivation simply alienates the “authority” further. Good luck with that.

    • NFB

      “The last major one involved the state proposing changing the Asehville City Council/Mayor election from all “at-large” to a mix of districts and at-large. Of course, Aseville leadership immediately “opposed” such a plan and likely more because it came from the state than because of the lack of merit for the concept. ”

      So did the voters. When put to them in a referendum 75% voted against a district system.

      There are pros and cons to a district system (just as there are to an at-large system.) But it should not be imposed on us by Raleigh.

      • Mike Rains

        True enough, but how citizens perceive and vote can be influenced greatly by the position/opionion of their leaders.

        Only council member Kapoor was willing to even discuss the state’s approach, but was drowned out by rest of council who wouldn’t even consider the idea.

        • NFB

          Councilman Kapoor was elected on a platform opposing district elections. He finished in first place. He later changed his stance and eventually resigned when his job transferred him out of town.

          It should also be noted that south Asheville, on whose behalf the legislature was claiming to force districts on the city, also voted solidly against the proposal.

          None of this is to say that the topic can’t or shouldn’t be revisited at some point but to blame city leaders for following the wishes of their constituents seems a bit much.

          Personally I would be open to some sort of district system in which the majority (if not all) of council is accountable to the entire city. That would give council a more geographic balance, and give each end of town a sense that they have someone who knows the area better while at the same time motivating council members to act in what is best for the entire city and not just their little corner of it.

          • Mike Rains

            Thank you for some clarifying history.

            I was very involved in this issue with City Council and conducted detailed research on other city’s and their elected makeup. I distilled that research down in a reasonably brief summary that also justified my recommendation to alter the proposed mix and have more at-large seats to balance the district representation.

            After sending that summary email to City Council and the Mayor, NO resposne was received from Council except Councilmember Kapoor who thanked me for the study and intended to discuss with Council.

            To be honest, this lack of response by others irrirtated me as it was obvious this wasn’t just another email rant which I’m sure they receive too often. A full month and a half later, I sent a brief email criticizing them for at least not responding to my study. From that second email I received the following 3 responses.

            Mayor Manheimer:
            “I did read your email and I appreciate your feedback. Council has chosen to move in a different direction and today the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting is out indicating that the council wants to move ahead with amending the charter to remove districts. I do appreciate the time and effort you out into your analysis and it is quite interesting. Thank you for trying to help us find a solution.”

            Julie Mayfield (then Councilmemember):
            “I am practical and pragmatic but I also don’t like cowering in front of a bully. We don’t need to pick fights with them necessarily, but they picked this one and I do feel an obligation to stand firm in opposition to what they did. ”

            Brian Haynes (then Councilmember):
            “I along with a majority of Council are opposed to the districts imposed on us by the legislature or any other form of districts.

            This is what forms my basis for believing that Asheville prides itself for being oppositional to Raleigh and I firmly believe that while that opposition may “feel good”, it is detrimental to us in the long run.

            The TDA is another example where I believe if we had a more respectful and professional relationship with Raleigh, we could have negotiated a much fairer/better arrangement (for Asheville) of that function.

            Thank you again for your knowledge and input on this issue.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.