Asheville City Council

School leaders typically report to the local government whose residents they serve. So why would top officials of the Buncombe County Schools appear before the Asheville City Council to field assorted hot-button questions, as they did at Council’s Oct. 19 work session?

The answer, it seems, has to do with the “A-word.” When Asheville annexes outlying areas, school-district boundaries remain unchanged. As a result, some 3,086 students — roughly half of those who live within the city limits — now attend the Buncombe County Schools. That fact is often cited by those who favor merging the two school systems.

And though Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower stated his personal opposition to consolidation, he went on to play devil’s advocate, pressing school officials to defend the status quo. “You are teaching half of our students,” noted Mumpower. “How would you suggest we get the two bodies together for a dialogue?”

Buncombe County School Board Chairman Roger Aiken said he’s all for dialogue but stressed that he sees little merit in the case for merger. “We have two systems that are successful in their own right,” said Aiken. “We have two very different constituencies.”

“The point of confusion,” Mumpower replied, “is that you are serving half of our constituency.”

Council member Holly Jones agreed with Aiken that there’s no need to push for consolidation. “When I see two strong systems, I say to politicians, ‘Stay away!'” she declared. But Jones didn’t shy away from asking about how the county schools are addressing such student-health problems as obesity, drug use and teenage pregnancy.

Superintendent Cliff Dodson responded by saying that schools should, first and foremost, teach. “Don’t broaden the vision — narrow the vision,” he urged. “We are not going to participate in everybody’s program. We protect that classroom.”

Yet the Buncombe County Schools have embraced at least one social program: drug testing. In early October, T.C. Roberson High School began random drug tests of students who participate in extracurricular activities.

State privacy statutes prohibit testing the entire school population for drugs, because students are required to attend school, Dodson explained. But since extracurricular activities are voluntary, the screening is legal. Students belonging to any competitive school group (including but not limited to athletic teams) are subject to the random tests, Dodson later told Xpress.

According to Roberson Principal Rob Weinkle, however, all participants in extracurricular activities (including band, chorus, student government, the Future Farmers of America and the honors society) can be tested, irrespective of whether or not the activities are competitive.

Eligible students are chosen randomly, 25 at a time, every four or five weeks. And if a test result comes back positive, a school counselor informs the parents, who must then decide what to do about it.

“It’s really just to assist parents,” said Dodson, noting that the school administration doesn’t have direct access to the test results. But if a second test also comes back positive, the administration is notified — and the student is barred from taking part in the extracurricular activity.

Asked why the school is conducting the testing rather than parents, Dodson told Xpress, “Because the parents aren’t doing it.” At the end of this school year, the school board will determine whether to end the program or expand it to the county’s six other high schools.

Council member Terry Bellamy said she’s heard complaints about the tests being aimed specifically at students who participate in extracurricular activities. She asked if there’s a drug-screening program for teachers.

Apart from a criminal-records check before hiring (which would include drug offenses), Dodson said no such testing is being done. But random drug tests of teachers, he suggested, would probably result in legal challenges.

A kinder, gentler Council?

Are you kind? Then don’t be surprised if a stranger walks up to you on the street and presents you with a button.

They’re not after your money. Instead, these foot soldiers in the Kindness Campaign are attempting to battle the decline of civility in modern society, explained Barry Weinhold, co-director of the nonprofit Carolina Institute For Conflict Resolution and Creative Leadership, which is sponsoring the project.

Weinhold, who led a similar campaign in Colorado Springs after finding a crisis of conduct in the community there, told Council that the idea is to pay attention to kindness — both our own and others’.

Program participants wear a button proclaiming: “Spread Kindness. It’s Contagious.” When button wearers observe acts of kindness, they pass their buttons on to those who committed them, thereby recruiting new people into the campaign.

Weinhold’s movement caught on in Colorado Springs, garnering media attention and spreading through the schools and even into other communities.

Weinhold and his wife moved to Asheville last year, and they’ve found the city fertile ground for a similar campaign.

“People are a little nicer here,” he said. “It’s that good ole Southern hospitality.” Weinhold, who has a doctorate in psychology, got the ball rolling by recruiting volunteers and setting up tables in local grocery stores. There he caught the attention of Vice Mayor Mumpower, who invited him to speak to City Council.

“I hope to encourage city-government members to become models of kindness,” he told Weinhold. He also asked the city for support in the form of advice and collaboration.

Mayor Charles Worley expressed his intention to attend the campaign’s official kickoff on Friday, Oct. 22 at the First Baptist Church.

“My vision is that someday Asheville will be known around the country as a model of kindness,” Weinhold declared.

City and county get flood update

Before going off to their respective regular meetings, Asheville City Council members and Buncombe County commissioners found themselves seated at the same table on Oct. 19 to hear reports from emergency workers and federal agencies about the destruction caused by last month’s storms.

All told, Hurricanes Frances, Ivan and Jeanne damaged more than 12,000 homes and businesses, reported Buncombe County Emergency Services Director Jerry VeHaun. He also noted that many holding tanks — some with unknown contents — had spilled about 100,000 gallons of liquids into the Swannanoa and French Broad rivers.

In many ways, however, the joint meeting shined a spotlight on what went right during the crisis — and what could be done right next time.

Department of Social Services Director Mandy Stone told the group that 15,000 people received a combined $2.5 million in benefits through the DSS in the days after the disasters.

And Justin DeMello of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said FEMA has given out $3 million in Buncombe County so far, with more aid to come. Although the local office closes on Nov. 19, DeMello said storm victims will still be able to register through the Raleigh office.

“We won’t consider our job done until we get them all,” he declared.

Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey praised the communication and coordination between the city and county during the emergency, describing their collective efforts as “Herculean.”

[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]

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