Moving on

Susan Fisher‘s hair may be a tad grayer than it was when she became chair of the Asheville Board of Education in 1998. And her younger child, Alex, now headed for the ninth grade, “was in kindergarten when [my first term on the board] started in 1993,” Fisher recalled during a March 2 interview.

But time, it seems, hasn’t diminished her desire for public office: When her school-board term ends March 31, Fisher may be thinking about setting her political sights several notches higher.

Like, maybe, mayor of Asheville? Mountain Xpress asked.

Fisher smiled and said, with perhaps a subtle nod to the political perils of that office, “Well … no.

A seat in the N.C. General Assembly might be more to Fisher’s liking, though she admits that some may see her more as the quintessential soccer mom. “Yes, I have a van,” said Fisher over coffee. And yes, she’s been very involved in her kids’ school careers: “I want to know what’s going on in my children’s lives, especially when it comes to school,” said the mother of two.

Couple that zeal with her love of politics, and it may only be a matter of time before Fisher wades into the political arena.

Her political fervor began with family: Fisher’s mother served as president of the Buncombe County Democratic Women years ago, and her grandmother was once a party precinct chair. Growing up with those lively political discussions left its mark on Fisher, who got a firsthand look at Capitol Hill in 1982, when she took a post as a legislative correspondent in Washington, D.C., for Rep. James “Jamie” Clarke.

“That’s when I caught the bug,” said Fisher, an Asheville High graduate who earned a bachelor’s degree in audiology and speech pathology from the University of Maryland the same year she went to work for Clarke. Some of the “coolest things about working for [him] were taking the tour of the Capitol with constituents and walking — Congressman Clarke always accompanied me if the office was working late — to Union Station to catch the train home each evening,” Fisher recounted.

Flush with that experience, she sought out the local chapter of the League of Women Voters after she and her husband, John, moved back to Asheville in the mid-1980s.

“I remember watching [league members] run a candidates’ forum, and I thought [the group] was a good place to get information about the issues in a bipartisan way,” Fisher recalled. drawing inspiration from such league leaders as Leah Karpen and Julia Cogburn, as well as former state Speaker Pro Tem Marie Colton and local activist Hazel Fobes.

Following in their footsteps, Fisher soon became league president. She served from 1988-92, when she co-chaired the Western Carolina Women’s Coalition Women’s Conference. Held at the Grove Park Inn, the event featured renowned journalist Cokie Roberts.

Fisher’s involvement in the league fueled her political fire, as did getting to meet Roberts (who, ironically, affirmed Fisher’s decision to be a “stay-at-home, volunteer mom,” she recalls). Fisher also took an interest in what was happening in the public schools at the time: Asheville administrators and school-board members were kicking around the magnet-schools concept and searching for a new superintendent. “I wanted to be part of the decision-making process,” she said.

So Fisher voluntered for service, working on the school board’s Magnet Schools Task Force and on the “design team” that outlined the classical-studies program for Vance Elementary School, where her son Jonathan was a student. Fisher also completed the Leadership Asheville program and served on the board of the Asheville City Schools Foundation, a fund-raising organization. Those efforts won Fisher a nomination as the Asheville/Buncombe Community Relations Council’s Woman of the Year.

In 1993, Fisher took the plunge and sought a seat on the city Board of Education. She found some irony in the interviews she went through: The year before, Fisher had quizzed City Council candidates during the league’s voter forums. Some of those candidates had subsequently won seats on Council, and this time, said Fisher, “They got to question me.

One of those questions was whether Asheville should have an appointed or an elected school board — an issue Mayor Leni Sitnick raised recently while interviewing this year’s school-board applicants. “What attracts quality superintendents to Asheville is that our board is appointed [and] less political than an elected board,” Fisher said. “I also feel that appointed boards bring a regular wave of fresh voices,” she asserted, adding that school-board members are limited to two terms.

“The biggest job the Board of Education does is hire the superintendent,” she continued, reflecting on her eight years of service. Wayne Trogden was hired during Fisher’s first term, and current Superintendent Karen Campbell assumed the post in 1998. The school board, Fisher explained, primarily sets policies for the superintendent to follow; it also reviews teachers’ contracts each year. “You have to trust the superintendent and the school principals; the board’s job is not to micromanage the school system,” Fisher remarked.

Soon after the board had hired Campbell, Fisher was named chair. What does she see as the board’s key accomplishments during her years at the helm?

“There was a lot of controversy around [the board’s] Pack Square office. The rent was high, and there was a lack of meeting space,” Fisher replied. So they renovated the long-vacant Lucy Herring School and relocated the school system’s central offices there. Besides saving money, the move addressed criticism that board members were inaccessible, Fisher noted. She also mentioned another move to open the doors to dialogue: “We were also the first public body in Asheville or Buncombe County to be broadcast live on cable TV.”

Another key event during Fisher’s tenure was the 1999 Columbine shooting, which spurred the compilation of an Emergency Crisis Guide for teachers and administrators. The guide deals with everything from traditional fire drills to threats of violence, dangerous intruders on campus, and hazardous-materials spills.

Meanwhile, the board was also trying to address a different kind of crisis: in student performance. The Student Achievement Task Force was created in 1998, Fisher continued. Nearly 200 parents, students, teachers, UNCA officials, business leaders “and even some of [the school system’s] harshest critics” served on that body, she noted. “We charged them with coming up with ways to eliminate the gap between our [top-scoring, predominantly white] students and our minority, at-risk students,” Fisher explained.

Many of the task force’s recommendations have been implemented, and the achievement gap has been narrowed in the elementary grades, she added. “But [Asheville] High School still has a large gap between white and black students,” Fisher said, adding, “There’s a lot to be proud of, but we still have lots to do. That’s life.”

But as Fisher sees it, a primary tactic for handling challenges is something that seems more philosophical than political: “Jamie Clark, who had served on City Council before Congress, told me that the thing you really want to strive for on your board is trust — or everything you try to do will be thwarted,” she said. And one key to building that trust, she continued, is getting egos out of the way. “The minute you stop thinking you’re the most important part of the process, things start getting done,” she remarked.

The school-board chair, Fisher pointed out, votes only when there’s a tie or his/her vote is needed to make a quorum. “So there’s the challenge of leading [fellow] board members to a decision that you [the chair] can agree with.”

Another challenge “is the combination of trying to involve as many people in the community in the decisions that affect students [but] knowing when it’s time to make the decisions. You’re going to get criticized for some of those decisions,” Fisher observed. “There’s the challenge of being, as chair, a diplomat for the school system. I know [it] has problems, but I want it to succeed, and I want to tout its success,” she said.

Fisher also noted some recent honors collected by the city schools. Newsweek magazine ranked Asheville High among the top 100 public high schools in the nation, and the National School Board Association chose the school’s Brass Ensemble and Madrigals Singers to perform for last year’s annual conference. In addition, the city schools are a good training ground for parents, asserted Fisher, mentioning a young, African-American single mom who’s chairing the Early Headstart Policy Committee.

But some critics still see school-board members as part of the establishment, Fisher mused. “They don’t realize — we’re just like them. We don’t get paid to serve on the school board.” And serving as chair is “an almost full-time job,” she pointed out.

As for her successor, Fisher offers this advice: “Develop trust among your board members. Let the professionals [teachers and administrators] do their jobs. And always keep in mind the bottom line: what’s best for the students.”

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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