County commissioners, city schools clash over fiscal management

May 11 Buncombe Board of Commissioners meeting
TALKING IN CIRCLES: The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and Asheville City Schools administrators met on May 11 to discuss the district's budget challenges. Screen capture courtesy of Buncombe County

The ongoing discussion of the Asheville City Schools budget has been defined by a shortage of funding. But patience appeared to be a potentially more limited resource as the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners questioned ACS leaders during a May 11 work session.

“The last three superintendents we’ve had here, including you, have not brought anything but mayhem to the school system,” declared Commissioner Al Whitesides to Superintendent Gene Freeman, referencing the disparity between the district’s worst-in-state racial achievement gaps and its eighth-highest per-student spending. Whitesides, a former member of the Asheville City Board of Education, proceeded to accuse Freeman of giving him “smoke and mirrors” in earlier talks about school finances.

Freeman denied that charge while doubling down on criticisms of the Asheville community he’d previously shared with Xpress in March. “When the staff that’s trying to bring the facts are criticized — y’all have gotten the emails, every step we make — no wonder superintendents don’t stay here,” he said. “If we don’t do something that is going to make some group angry, and if people don’t let us do our job, I don’t know what’s going to happen. … I’ve had it to about here.”

The exchange came as ACS administrators requested more county money and higher taxes to balance their books, a change from a previously outlined plan to use the remaining $2 million of the district’s dwindling financial reserves. The May 11 proposal asked for over $13.8 million from the county general fund, a $716,000 increase from the budget presented to the school board on May 6.

The system also asked Buncombe leaders to keep a supplemental property tax rate of 12 cents per $100 of assessed value for residents living in the ACS district. Because property values increased throughout the county after a revaluation completed in February, maintaining that rate would lead to a median 13% increase in taxes compared with the revenue-neutral rate of 10.62 cents and raise an extra $1.45 million. (Both the county and city of Asheville are also budgeting double-digit percentage increases in their median tax bills.)

Brownie Newman, the Buncombe board’s chair, did not look with favor upon the school system’s entreaties. “These are the neighborhoods getting creamed the most in terms of inflation of property values and people’s tax burden,” he said regarding the district’s boundaries, which include rapidly appreciating areas such as Southside and West Asheville. “I’d be much more inclined, as a starting point, to think of it as a revenue-neutral rate.”

No formal votes were taken at the work session. The commissioners will next meet regarding the county’s budget on Tuesday, May 18; the school board’s next scheduled meeting is Monday, May 24.

In other news

Although the traditional parade of county fire chiefs making their budget cases before the commissioners was put on hold this year due to COVID-19, Buncombe’s fire districts still shared their funding plugs for the next fiscal year in a presentation to the board. Of 20 districts, 12 are requesting effective tax increases to cover higher salaries, updated facilities and new equipment.

Dennis Fagnant, chief of the West Buncombe Fire Department, said he hoped to hire six new employees and purchase two new trucks to keep up with increased demand. As his district’s population grows, he continued, his firefighters are often responding to three or four calls for service at a time.

County Manager Avril Pinder supported all 12 of the proposed increases, which will be voted on as part of the overall budget. A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for Tuesday, June 1.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Assistant Editor of Mountain Xpress, regularly contributing to coverage of Western North Carolina's government, environment and health care. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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7 thoughts on “County commissioners, city schools clash over fiscal management

  1. Mike R.

    Citizens need to raise up and demand that ACS merge with Buncombe County Schools. Call it Asheville Buncombe Schools.
    Asheville City leaders have way more than they can handle just trying to run the city, let alone have any serious accountability with ACS.
    Just recently they decided to have elected school board members, like everywhere else….BUT being Asheville, couldn’t quite let go so they will also continue to appoint a few commissioners as before.

    Asheville tries to address every known concern/problem in the universe and as a result can’t manage the basics of running the city.

    Consolidate the system. That will eliminate a duplicative administrative overhead that is significant. Operations and maintenance will be more efficient. ONE SCHOOL BOARD! ELECTED. With appropriate apportionment of reps form the City and County. Move on!

  2. Simon

    If the last three superintendents brought nothing but chaos and maybe a few pet projects (which appears to be accurate), perhaps the problem is in the hiring process. Fix that process before you replace the current yutz (but don’t take too long!)

    • Mike R.

      Of course it’s in the hiring process. And who hires the Superintendent? The past APPOINTED school board members. So essentially, the Mayor and City Council are on the hook for these decisions.
      Why do we even need two school systems?? Two Superintendents. Asheville is quite small in comparison to BCS. Put the two together and run with elected school board members that are accountable to the voters!

  3. rwd

    YES…eliminate the redundant and ineffective expense !!! Why was this implemented in the first place ? It makes very little…to no sense at all. Proposals, suggestions, and programs only get mired down in discussions and delays. This process is ridiculous !!! Simply stated it is not efficient…in any other real world this setup would be terminated and categorized as frivolous waste !!

  4. Cecil Bothwell

    I’d say voters in the Asheville City School district should be the ones to decide whether a merger should take place. The systems are different in significant ways. ACS magnet schools have been very successful, the Montessori program is popular and a one-off in WNC, for two examples. Bad management doesn’t mean the system is bad. On the flip side, the County system puts a much higher priority on sports, something ACS tends to downplay.
    The ACS administration under Freeman is about as non-transparent as it can be. I’ve been seeking data for over two months, been promised it, crickets. If the Board had done a quick internet search I don’t see how they could have tapped him in the first place.

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  5. indy499

    Brownie and Whitesides busting any organization about inefficiency is a hoot of the highest order.

    Why are county taxes proposed to go up 16% oh wise county leaders? What a joke.

    Oh, and livability and affordability are key issues for you? SHOW IT.

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