The majority of Asheville City Council supports electing at least some members of the Asheville City Board of Education starting in 2022. But following a pair of votes for different methods of picking the school board on March 9, the final say on its composition now rests with the N.C. General Assembly, which must pass legislation to enact any change.
A motion by Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith recommending that the all-appointed board, one of just two in the state, be changed to a seven-member hybrid with four elected members passed 5-2, with Mayor Esther Manheimer and Council member Antanette Mosley in opposition. A subsequent proposal to shift the current five-member board to an all-elected body also passed, with Mosley and Smith voting no.
No school district in North Carolina operates on a hybrid model, City Attorney Brad Branham told Council members at the start of their discussion. The only state precedent is a model used by the city of Whiteville in the 1970s, in which some school board members were elected and others appointed by the General Assembly. Currently, all Asheville school board members are appointed by Council.
Worried about that lack of precedent, Manheimer encouraged her colleagues to vote on a fully elected school board model “just in case” the legislature was unwilling to accept the hybrid recommendation. Council members Gwen Wisler and Kim Roney both said they preferred the hybrid model but would support a fully elected board as well.
Mosley, the only member to vote against both proposals, argued that any change could lead to greater inequities for Asheville’s Black students. Under the all-appointed board, Asheville City Schools has reported the worst racial achievement gaps in the state since at least 2015.
“My concern is that we’re opening Pandora’s box and potentially going as far away from equity as imaginable,” Mosley said, suggesting that legislators could decide to combine the Buncombe County and Asheville City school districts instead of changing the school board makeup. “If we roll into Buncombe County Schools, is that the more equitable outcome? Are our voices decreasing?”
Roughly 20 community members, identifying as parents, teachers and school advocates, spoke about a lack of transparency and accountability under the current board model. Many commenters recounted stories of unanswered emails and phone calls, limited public comment at board meetings and a lack of engagement with constituents — all issues they said would be resolved if members were elected by school district residents and held accountable through regular elections.
Other commenters, including Dewana Little, argued that shifting away from an appointed model could stifle minority voices. “I look at the fully elected school board process as being potentially hazardous and a mechanism to marginalize out the low population of Black people within the city school district limits,” she said. “I definitely am in favor of this move to a hybrid model and think it’s in the best interest of our kids.”
Any decisions made by the General Assembly would likely come well after the three current school board openings are filled. Council is slated to interview seven candidates in the morning of Tuesday, March 23, before voting on their choices that evening. The House deadline for filing local bills is Thursday, March 25; if the legislation isn’t requested by then, it likely won’t be considered until the legislature’s short session next spring and would not be effective for the 2022 election cycle.