Buncombe school board opposes proposed change in district lines

FREE FOOD: The Buncombe County Board of Education listens as staff members present an initiative to provide free meals to almost every student in the Buncombe system. Photo by Frances O'Connor

The Buncombe County Board of Education unanimously opposed a bill in the N.C. General Assembly that would change how its body is elected at its meeting June 1.

House Bill 66 would change how boards of education in four North Carolina counties are elected, including Buncombe, changing representation from being tied to school attendance zones to new population-based districts.

“It’s frustrating. I feel like, you know, we show up, we put together a legislative agenda that is a request for needs, for what our students need and what our teachers need. We’re basically walking through the desert knocking on the door saying, ‘Hey, we need a glass of water.’ And what we get back is a glass of sand,” said board member Rob Elliot, who represents the Reynolds district.

Since 1975, Buncombe has elected 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 residents can vote for all school board representatives, who run on a nonpartisan basis, regardless of their address, according to the resolution passed by the board.

If the proposed bill passes, some of the smaller districts will likely have to expand to account for their lower population, meaning they could potentially be represented by someone who lives in a different attendance zone, said Dean Shatley, Buncombe school board attorney. It would also limit whom residents could vote for to the newly drawn population-based district in which they live.

For example, the Owen district would have to be redrawn to include parts of East Asheville and Fairview, currently in the Reynolds district, which would mean someone whose children attend schools in Reynolds could be elected to represent the students and parents of Black Mountain, Shatley said.

Board members Elliot and Amy Churchill said the current representation of each attendance zone and accountability to voters countywide keep students’ needs in the forefront.

“I know that there has been some discussion that communities should have representatives that share their community’s values, traditions, etc. But when I actually read this bill, it’s going to do the exact opposite. I feel like at some point, at least one of our traditional districts is not going to have representation,” said Churchill, who represents the Roberson district.

It’s not immediately clear where the bill — originally sponsored by Reps. Mitchell Setzer and Jay Adams of Catawba County — got its Buncombe language.

Churchill said Sen. Warren Daniel, who represents McDowell, parts of Burke and the eastern part of Buncombe is responsible for the added language about Buncombe districts after it passed through the House and arrived in the Senate.

Supporters of the bill, while not present at the June 1 meeting, have said in public Facebook posts that voters should only be able to elect representatives in their own community, not on the other side of the county, which waters down their accountability.

FRUSTRATING DISTRACTION: Board member Rob Elliot says a N.C. House Bill designed to change how board members are elected is nothing more than a distraction. Photo by Frances O’Connor

Current board members disagree.

“We are a cross-section of beliefs up here. We are not all registered in the same party. And it’s worked since at least 1975 to grow the great program that we have here,” Elliot said.

If the bill passes, Shatley said the burden would be on the local school board to redraw districts, which could cost $20,000 to $25,000, he said.

Shatley said new districts that are split based on equal population would be complicated by the existence of the Asheville City Schools district in the core of the county. Some census blocks in North Asheville and Woodfin contain both school districts within them, and the district would have to parse out who lives where and what school district they live within before drawing lines, he said.

Elliot said spending that money would take away from resources for students.

“I think about our classroom teachers, the ones that cannot afford art supplies, and have to rely on the PTAs of the world to sell cookies and brownies to raise money… to pay for art supplies for our kids,” he said.

The bill will be reviewed on the floor of the state Senate the week of June 12 before potentially going back to the House floor for a vote, Shatley said.

In other news

Buncombe County schools will provide breakfast and lunch free of charge nearly districtwide in 2023-24 after the school board adopted a nonpricing meal service option June 1.

The Community Eligibility Provision, part of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, provides reimbursement from federal funds to feed students in school districts in low-income areas based on the percentage of students who qualify for free and/or reduced-price meals. The provision will eliminate the need for collecting household applications from parents in order to qualify.

More than 55% of students in Buncombe County schools qualify for free or reduced-cost meals, high enough to qualify for the program, according to a presentation by Lisa Payne, BCS’ nutrition director.

Only 28% of students at Nesbitt Discovery Academy qualify for the program, meaning the parents of eligible students at that school will still have to submit an electronic application for free or reduced-price lunch. Buncombe County School Nutrition Association has agreed to cover the cost of one student’s lunch at Nesbitt Discovery Academy for the school year, and BCS will seek other sponsors for students at that school, Payne said.

The program operates on a four-year cycle, so BCS will have to reapply in 2027.


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3 thoughts on “Buncombe school board opposes proposed change in district lines

  1. Cynthia Heil

    Is this being led by the GOP-controlled legislature? This on top of getting into women’s repro organs/rights; dictating how we can manage STRs; getting into people’s sex lives; deciding how counties and cities should elect their local commissioners and council members; deciding how local TDA money will be divided; etc.? This from the party that wants to keep government out of our lives?? Huh …. No wonder people are leaving MS parties.

    • Lou

      Thank you, all you said PLUS…anyone have any idea how many Trump-loving, Jesus-preaching, virus-downplaying, current POTUS-hating, racist, misogynistic, climate change-denying, vote-against-their-own-best-interests, emotionally unstable people work with your kids? I’m a contractor who has worked in various districts throughout the state and I have receipts. I do not understand how anyone sends their children to a public school without being there every single day, even if it’s just for a few minutes to check in. I am so sad for our children.

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