In a decision that caught local teachers off guard, Asheville City Council voted Feb. 9 to eliminate half of the 16 contenders for three open seats on the Asheville City Board of Education. Eight hopefuls, including incumbents Joyce Brown, James Carter and Patricia Griffin, will now seek Council’s appointment to the five-member board.
The slate of candidates passed on a 5-2 Council vote, with members Kim Roney and Sage Turner in opposition. Among those cut from the running were a trio of candidates supported by multiple community members in emails and phone calls to elected officials.
During a meeting of the city’s Boards and Commissions committee earlier on Feb. 9, Roney had advocated for allowing those candidates — Montford North Star Academy Parent-Teacher Organization President Pepi Acebo, longtime Asheville City Schools volunteer and parent Kate Fisher and former YWCA Asheville CEO Libby Kyles — to advance to the full Council for consideration. Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith and Antanette Mosley stood against the move, and the committee voted 2-1 to recommend a different group for the full Council to confirm.
Daniel Withrow, president of the Asheville City Association of Educators, says that his organization had been preparing to make its first-ever endorsements for school board seats this year given the high community interest in the process. He explains that Council’s initial timeline for appointments had scheduled the narrowing of the candidate field for early March and that the ACAE had planned its own work accordingly.
No Council members contacted ACAE regarding their intention to trim candidates on an earlier schedule, Withrow says. And Council largely ignored a letter from the group, read by Roney immediately prior to the Feb. 9 vote, asking for all candidates to be kept in the pool until the teachers could make their endorsements.
Mosley did not respond to a request for comment regarding her votes. However, she said during a Jan. 12 Boards and Commissions Committee meeting that she favored reappointing the existing school board members after speaking with unspecified ACS representatives and hearing no “negative feedback” on their leadership. (As previously reported by Xpress, the current board has guided the system into a period of financial distress and worst-in-state racial achievement disparities.)
Smith also said on Jan. 12 that the recommendation of school board Chair Shaunda Sandford to reappoint the incumbents should be “the guiding post for our decision.” But she walked back that comment in a Feb. 11 conversation with Xpress, saying, “I don’t think their reappointment is the center of what we did with our process.”
And the vice mayor took issue with the language of the ACAE’s letter. “I would consider their recommendation if I felt that it was on process alone. But I feel like their recommendation for us to pull our decision this late in the process is because they didn’t like the candidate pool,” Smith said. “It’s questionable how they would know the individual activity and the level of activity of those candidates.”
Although Withrow emphasizes that ACAE as an organization has yet to choose its favored candidates, several notable teachers have thrown their weight behind Acebo, Fisher and Kyles. ACAE Vice President Susanna Cerrato wrote in an email to Council that the three have “all worked for years, tirelessly, to advocate for transparency, accountability and equity.” And Jessica Jackson, the district’s 2019 teacher of the year, wrote that the trio “should absolutely be considered as candidates.”
Besides the incumbents, the remaining candidates include juvenile court counselor Stephen Blount, urban education graduate student Michele Delange, UNC Asheville Dean of Students Jacquelyn Carr McHargue, Buncombe County Recreation Services Director Peyton O’Conner and Homeward Bound of WNC executive George Sieburg. Council is tentatively scheduled to make its final appointments Tuesday, March 23.
Meanwhile, the ACAE will continue with its own endorsements — with its process considering the entire pool of 16 candidates, not just the eight chosen by Council. “That does mean we may end up endorsing candidates who are not part of that smaller group, and so we’re really going to encourage Asheville City Council to stay open to everyone who applied,” Withrow says.