At its Nov. 2 meeting, the Buncombe County Board of Education pushed back approval of policy changes required by a new state law until its December meeting, as some parents and student advocates argued the bill would create a hostile learning environment for LGBTQ+ students.
During public comment, representatives from the Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality expressed their concerns over Senate Bill 49, stating their belief that the bill contradicts Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination in schools on the basis of gender.
“We don’t see any reason why it serves Buncombe County to rush our schools into the culture wars at this time,” said Craig White, supportive schools director for CSE. “We are asking you to slow things down.”
In October, CSE sent a memo to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction arguing that the bill contradicts Title IX. The NCDPI kicked the matter to the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. CSE plans to issue a federal civil rights complaint, White said.
“We are very much listening to your voices right now as we work through these policies related to state law,” said board member Rob Elliot.
To that end, the board has set up an email account to receive comments from the public on SB 49. To make your voice heard, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Supporters of SB 49, also known as the Parents’ Bill of Rights, say it safeguards parents’ roles in their children’s education. Opponents argue that it creates an unsafe atmosphere for some students — especially those who identify as LGBTQ+ — because it bans material related to gender expression, identity and sexuality.
Amber King, a social worker with CSE, said there are many ways in which the bill creates a hostile learning environment for some students.
“When there’s government surveillance and reporting of every book that a student checks out of the library, that’s a hostile environment,” she said. “When every adult in the room is required to police every student to make sure they’re using the name and pronouns on their birth certificate, that’s a hostile environment. When only stories about straight and cisgender families can be read in a kindergarten class and the child with two moms or two dads learns that books about their families have been banned, that’s a hostile environment. When teachers all the way through high school are already stripping any mention of LGBTQ people or issues from the curriculum because they’re scared of being targeted by hate groups, that is a hostile environment.”
In Buncombe, seven policies that have been created or updated will be considered for passage at the board’s December meeting, said Dean Shatley, school board attorney. Those are: parental inspection of and objection to instructional materials; criminal behavior; surveys of students; student health services; staff responsibilities; parental involvement; and comprehensive health education program.
White said the district has more work to do to address issues he raised about the proposed policies.
“With all due respect, I do not believe you have finished your homework,” he said. “You have not addressed the Title IX concerns about a hostile educational environment that we shared with the policy committee over a month ago. You have not addressed the issue that your proposed policies require educators, counselors, teachers, social workers, nurses and librarians to violate their professional codes of ethics. You have not considered the ways in which your proposed policies will violate existing state laws, such as the statute which requires schools to be free from bullying and harassment, defined by law to include any acts of bias motivated by gender identity or sexual orientation.”
Shatley told Xpress after the meeting that he thought there was room for both SB 49 and Title IX to exist, and they are working out how to follow both while taking policy guidance from the N.C. School Boards Association.
“This law is complicated,” Elliot said during the meeting. “It does create some friction that we’re trying to navigate. As all school districts are in that policy work, we’re going to continue our primary focus of maintaining a safe, healthy learning environment that respects the dignity of each and every child.”
Board begins redistricting process
In a special called work session Nov. 2, the board received guidance from hired consultants on complying with a state mandate requiring the district to redraw its electoral lines.
House Bill 142 requires the board to redraw its six districts based on an evenly distributed population rather than on the district’s high school attendance zones, as has been done since 1975.
Currently, Buncombe elects one school board member to represent each of the county’s six attendance zones — Enka, Erwin, Owen, North Buncombe, Reynolds and Roberson — and one at-large member. Candidates must live in the district they represent and run on a nonpartisan basis. Meanwhile, residents can vote for all school board representatives, regardless of their address.
Based on the new law, voters who live in the newly drawn districts will vote only for the representative running in the district in which they live. The law doesn’t change where students will go to school, only school board representation.
Board members discussed what priorities they would like to see in newly drawn districts. Ultimately, they agreed that staying as close as possible to the current attendance zones should be a top priority. They also prioritized keeping current board members in separate districts so they wouldn’t have to run against each other, keeping communities of interest such as historic neighborhoods together and maintaining a general “pie wedge” shape to districts so each will include a piece of the county’s more urban center.
Adam Mitchell of Tharrington Smith LLC and Blake Esselstyn of Magfigure Consulting will bring three potential maps back to the board to consider at a December meeting.