If Asheville City Council wants to bring any legislation before the state General Assembly this year — including the creation of an elected board for Asheville City Schools or changes to the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority’s room tax allocation — its members need to make those decisions in the next few weeks.
The topic of an elected school board has been controversial for years, Mayor Esther Manheimer told Council at its Jan. 26 meeting. Members had previously floated the idea on Jan. 12 as they discussed the impending appointment of members to three open board seats.
“I’m just a little panicked because our time is so short,” Manheimer said. “The burning question is that of the school board. We need to make a decision sooner rather than later.”
The district is one of only two in North Carolina to have an appointed school board. Under the current system, which is set by state law, Council members appoint applicants to a four-year term; the process can include screening questions, essays and interviews. The next round of appointments is legally required to be made by Thursday, April 1.
In past years, Council has worked with Buncombe County’s state representatives and senators to craft an agenda for each legislative session, Manheimer explained during a portion of the meeting designated to discuss legislative priorities. Political differences between the left-leaning Council and the Republican-controlled General Assembly have created a “rocky relationship” in recent cycles, she said, adding that the dynamic has recently changed from fending off “terrible legislation” to asking for legislation in “calmer waters.”
Antanette Mosley opposed the school board change, saying that before Council takes any steps, she would like to find out what the original stated purpose was for instituting an appointed body. She said she’d recently spoken with an unspecified “expert in the field” who warned that changing the board without first knowing its background would have no bearing on the school system’s worst-in-state racial achievement gap.
“I’ve received several calls from organized groups and individuals in the Black community who are outraged that this is under consideration,” said Mosley, who is Black. “They really see it as a political power play designed to get Black voices out of the public schools.”
Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith and Sage Turner both expressed support for having preliminary discussions with the community before switching to an elected board. “Any other route would be very irresponsible,” Smith said.
A joint meeting among Council, the school board and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners to discuss the proposal is being scheduled for the near future, but a date had not been set as of press time. In the interim, Council is planning to proceed with the board appointments. At its meeting of Tuesday, Feb. 9, Council will need to decide on a screening process for screening applicants; final appointments are tentatively scheduled for Council’s meeting of Tuesday, March 23.
Manheimer also brought up a proposed reallocation of the county’s occupancy tax funds, which she and Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman had been poised to jointly advocate during last year’s legislative cycle. The bill was slated to go before the General Assembly in April, but according to Manheimer, the state’s COVID-19 pandemic response pushed it off the state agenda.
Conversation about reviving this legislative ask could wait until Council’s next regular meeting, Manheimer said. Former Council member and current state Sen. Julie Mayfield will be a “great conduit” to get the legislature to help with the tax change, she added.