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.