The Asheville Primary School building on Haywood Road in West Asheville hasn’t hosted any students this academic year, in keeping with the Asheville City Board of Education’s decision to close the school last December. But the facility could see new life in the coming weeks, following the board’s unanimous approval of a plan to use APS as a temporary winter shelter Dec. 15.
School board members — including Liza English-Kelly, Amy Ray, Rebecca Strimer and Sarah Thornburg, who won election to the board in November’s elections and were sworn in Dec. 15 — signed off on a memorandum of understanding with Counterflow Asheville. The organization is working with Trinity United Methodist Church, Grace Episcopal Church and Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church to provide shelter for people who may not be able to access traditional shelters.
The Winter Safe Shelter program at APS will prioritize families, LGBTQ people and residents who are Black, Indigenous or people of color, according to Counterflow’s website. The shelter plans to operate nightly through the end of March, housing up to 10 people per night with space for another 10 support staff on site.
Counterflow will be responsible for the shelter’s utility and maintenance costs and will be required to obtain insurance coverage. ACS will only be providing the space and will have no financial obligation regarding the project.
Despite the board’s enthusiasm for the shelter, zoning questions could delay or prevent the project from happening. Part of the school building falls within Haywood Road Form District – Core zoning, which does not allow shelters. However, according to interim Superintendent Jim Causby, the northern half of the school falls into Institutional District zoning district, where shelters are permitted by right.
“Hopefully the ruling will be that, since part of it is acceptable, then all of it is. But if it’s not, we’ll look to see if we can find rooms where it is legal,” Causby said, when asked by Thornburg if Counterflow could use building spaces that fell within the correct zoning. The proposed shelter would occupy four classrooms and use the school’s bathrooms, kitchen and courtyard.
Chris Campbell, the school board’s attorney, is in conversation with the city of Asheville to determine exactly where the zoning line falls and whether the building can be used as a shelter. If the zoning does not permit the use, he warned, then the project could be significantly delayed or prevented from opening at all this winter.
“We’ll do everything we can to work with the city,” Campbell said. “But just so everyone understands, the timing of that process may prevent it from being used as a shelter. We just don’t know.”
O’Conner resigns from school board
During another meeting of the school board Dec. 5, member Peyton O’Conner announced her resignation. O’Conner, who is transgender, cited recent public comments directed against her and the board related to her gender identity.
“It seems like the attacks that have been brought are going to continue to be brought,” O’Conner said. “I don’t want my presence on the board to create a platform for that, because I don’t think that it’s something that our LGBTQIA+ students and staff really need this to be the forum for.”
Although the board will transition to a fully elected body after 2024, O’Conner had been appointed to her seat by Asheville City Council; Council members will thus be tasked with selecting her replacement. Council is scheduled to interview the four runners-up from this year’s school board elections on Tuesday, Jan. 10, and select one to fill O’Conner’s vacancy: Pepi Acebo, Miri Massachi, William Young Jr. and Jesse Warren.