Asheville City Board of Education members Shaunda Sandford and Martha Geitner faced tough questions from Asheville City Council at an interview session on March 26. But at Council’s regular meeting that same evening, the two were unanimously reappointed to four-year terms on the board.
James Carter received five votes to fill the unexpired two-year term of James Lee, who recently relocated to accept a new job. Both a product of and former parent in the Asheville City Schools, Carter works in community outreach for United Healthcare and has served on a number of local nonprofit boards, including the Literacy Council of Buncombe County and Children First/Communities in Schools.
Mayor Esther Manheimer and Council member Julie Mayfield, however, cast their votes for ACS parent and small-business owner Pepi Acebo to fill the remainder of Lee’s term. He provided detailed responses to Council’s written questions prior to the interviews.
Much of Council’s scrutiny focused on controversies such as the school board’s decision to discontinue a year-round schedule at Hall Fletcher Elementary, changes to playgrounds at Vance Elementary and a dust-up over a March 4 decision to stop offering Math I to seventh-graders. Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, who serves as Council’s liaison to the Asheville City Schools, said parents and teachers tell Council “that decisions are being made at the school system, and they’re not either informed or in the loop or involved upfront.”
Mayfield pressed Geitner, a retired Asheville City Schools teacher, about the communication problem. “So you’ve been on the board for all of that. So my question is, how did this happen again, in terms of big decisions being made at a school without sufficient involvement from the parents and the teachers of that school?” she asked.
Geitner accepted responsibility for the mistakes but didn’t provide any specific steps the board would take to correct them.
Manheimer then asked whether the school system has a public engagement effort, noting, “I’m a parent of students in the system, and it doesn’t seem to me like there is an engagement team. So if there is, it’s not very engaging. …
“I still am not hearing from the board their understanding of what is needed here in terms of community engagement,” the mayor continued. “I would like to learn more from you and the board, what is the plan? You said you were working on this community engagement issue for the last year.”
“I would love to sit down and talk to you more about that,” responded Geitner.
The board, noted Sandford, is always assessing its communication strategies. “We do a lot with our communications director, Ashley-Michelle [Thublin], whether that’s through social media, telephone calls,” she said.
“You guys are trying to make a lot of change happen in the school system,” Manheimer interjected. “What are you doing to engage parents, faculty, students on the front end, before decisions are made?”
Sandford cited existing communication efforts such as the Homework Diner program at Asheville Middle School, Superintendent Denise Patterson’s weekly 60-second videos distributed via social media and communication to parents by school principals.
“Shaunda, this has been one hell of a year for the school board,” said Council member Sheneika Smith. Suggesting that “one segment of our parent community” had been active in making its concerns known, Smith asked what was being done to encourage “other parent communities to be vocal around the achievement gap, our disciplinary actions and access to some of the other services within our schools that would help close what we’re calling now the opportunity gap?”
Sandford, who is a social worker with the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, responded that the board must make those parents — presumably, people of color and those with lower incomes — feel welcome by building relationships and treating parents as active participants in their children’s education.
In reply to a question from Council member Keith Young about the school system’s top priority, Sandford cited the ICS Equity initiative, which is aimed at “dismantling the system that was created to do exactly what it’s doing, which is to keep that [racial achievement] gap right where it is.”
The gap has been steadily increasing since 2009, she said, and “the biggest thing we need to do is to hold people accountable. … And if they’re not willing to change and do something different, then we’ll have to re-evaluate that.
“There is going to be pushback, because when you’re trying to dismantle this system, it’s going to make other people feel uncomfortable,” Sandford continued. “And that’s typically the people the system works great for.”
The ICS Equity program calls for ACS to undertake an “equity audit” to better understand which aspects of its curriculum, policies and operations may be contributing to disparate outcomes among different groups of students. Based on the results, the next steps could include eliminating separate tracks for different achievement levels, which the program’s creators, Elise Frattura and Colleen Capper of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Education, say have resegregated public schools by race and family income within school buildings.
Council member Brian Haynes asked Carter to clarify his written statement, in which the board hopeful said he didn’t have enough information about the ICS Equity program to offer an opinion on whether he supports it. “There have been two things that I’ve ever seen. One was in Mountain Xpress, one was in the Citizen Times,” Carter said. “That was in 2017. We’ve been in this for a year and a half. What has the system paid for this? Let’s get some accountability.”
Information posted on the ICS Equity and Asheville City Schools websites, Carter said, doesn’t shed light on what the system proposes to do and how it will do it. “I mean, they have some great graphics, but they’re not telling me anything,” he said.
Carter said he’d like to know if the system talked with other similar districts before committing to the ICS process. “I’m all about doing research,” he said.
Reached after Council’s vote, Manheimer explained her decision as rooted in community support for the incumbent board members. “We got a few emails saying, ‘Throw everyone out and start over,’ but we got many, many emails and a petition asking for their reappointment,” she said.
Manheimer provided the petition by email. A cover note, signed by community member and Asheville City Schools parent Veronika Gunter, stated, “This totals 198 requests today alone” in support of Sandford and Geitner.
“The reappointment of Shaunda Sandford and Martha Geitner is necessary in order to ensure that the strides we have made towards achieving EQUITY for ALL children continues in Asheville City Schools,” the petition read. “Ms. Sandford and Ms. Geitner have championed the challenge of making things right for our children, from those living on Town Mountain to those in housing developments to our homeless youth.”
Many of those signing the petition, which was provided as an email attachment, listed street addresses from the Southside neighborhood of Asheville, an area that’s home to many African-American and lower-income residents.
According to Wisler, Council has been pushing the school system and its board to increase public engagement and transparency, and the questions at the interview reflected that. “Shaunda and Martha had an amazing amount of support [in the community],” she said. “I’ve worked with them quite a bit. I know that they are continuing to try to improve along these lines.”