Montford North Star Academy to close and consolidate with Asheville Middle

HARD DECISIONS: Board member Jesse Warren, far right, acknowledged the palpable pain in the room ahead of the Asheville City Board of Education's vote to close Montford North Star Academy next school year. Photo by Greg Parlier

Anger, fear and tears came spilling out of a tense Asheville City Board of Education meeting March 11 after the school board voted 5-2 to close Montford North Star Academy and send its students to Asheville Middle School next school year. Board members Liza Kelly and James Carter dissented.

“This is a sham and a disgrace,” one parent yelled at the board once the vote was complete. “I’m out of here, you don’t have to escort me out. This is disgusting. Bunch of liars.”

The board sat somberly as parents slowly filtered out of the three-plus-hour meeting, some crying, some yelling frustrations as board Chair George Sieburg banged his gavel. Sieburg stood up for the board in closing comments.

“As board chair, I’ve spoken with all my fellow board members and have heard them wrestling with the ramifications of this decision,” he said. “[The statements] on social media claiming that this was a foregone conclusion [are] 100% false. The claim also that the folks in the central office … were deliberately manipulating or misrepresenting data is also patently false. In fact, a lot of what gets shared on social media in regards to this district, the misinformation that gets amplified, the false narratives that take on a life of their own is dangerous to the well-being of this district. And it is not innocent of creating instability in our district. Trust, after all, is a two-way street. Anytime a district chooses to consolidate schools, there’s deep sadness, and family, staff and students will be given time to grieve the decision.”

The vote comes after two months of community meetings, listening sessions and board meetings where first-year Superintendent Maggie Fehrman and the board discussed the district’s options for addressing a projected $4.5 million budget shortfall next year and declining enrollment. The future of the Education and Career Academy, an alternative program currently housed in the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville’s Arthur R. Edington Education and Career Center, was also central to the board’s decision.

Fehrman projects the middle school merger will save the district $1.8 million to $2.3 million per year, largely from staff reductions through attrition. It’s not yet clear if all MNSA staff will be moved to the AMS campus.

According to the reconfiguration study provided by Asheville City Schools, the district hopes merging the middle schools will enhance educational opportunities for all students and improve its use of campus space, in addition to addressing budget concerns.

Fehrman hopes to expand the ECA’s alternative programming to include all grades K-12, which the Montford Avenue facility will now be open to hosting.

Additionally, staff determined there would be “minimal impact” on the district’s overall middle-school-age enrollment, citing the study’s findings that only 13 students were lost after the closure of Asheville Primary School in 2021.

Success at MNSA

SCHOOL KUDOS: Montford North Star Academy was named a 2024 “School to Watch” by the N.C. Middle Level Educators Association. Next year, it won’t exist. Photo by Thomas Calder

As board members made clear during their comments before the vote, the decision to close MNSA had little to do with the middle school’s success since it was founded in 2017. In fact, MNSA has given much for the district to be proud of, including being named a 2024 “School to Watch” by the N.C. Middle Level Educators Association.

Among other special programs, Principal Shannon Baggett has highlighted the school’s Science Olympiad team, slated to compete in a state competition in April, as an example of the school’s STEAM-focused approach to education. (STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and math.)

More than 80 residents spoke to the school’s value across two February listening sessions, highlighting its unique project-based approach, small size and real-world focus. That sentiment carried over to the public comment section of the March 11 meeting.

Angelica Benevides said her family has struggled to find stability, including being homeless during the pandemic, and MNSA gave her son a chance to succeed after so much upheaval.

“Montford North Star has been a home for him,” she told the board. “It has made him feel included, equal. He has had one-on-one help whenever he needs it. This school has given him so much stability.”

Stacie Saunders said she pays extra to send her kids to ACS schools even though she doesn’t live in the district because she values the choice provided at each of the elementary, middle and high school levels, including MNSA.

Parent Sandy Newes said she was concerned about the mental health impact school consolidation will have on kids who were in elementary school when COVID shut in-person learning down in 2020.

A petition asking the district to delay its consolidation decision garnered more than 975 signatures March 11.

For her part, Kelly said removing the district’s middle school of choice perpetuates harm to the ACS community.

“I agree with the notion that we need to slow down this process and think creatively. We can find the right home for ECA,” she said. “There’s no question that those kids deserve it and need it. … I want to be sure that we do this right. Because our school district has a history of being reactionary and not giving things time and performing our due diligence in making thoughtful decisions that impact our kids for a very long time.”

Kelly later made a motion to put a moratorium on closing schools. That motion was not seconded.

Ultimately, a majority of board members said that the district’s financial limitations and promise to serve all students — including its Black students, whom the district has a well-documented poor track record in educating — outweigh the benefits of maintaining a middle school of choice.

“I’ve been in [Montford’s] building. I got to … see the impact of how valuable project-based learning is for our students,” Siebrug said. “And then I think about how valuable that could be across our entire district. I applaud the educators of Montford North Star. I applaud that vision of making education real for our students, and I want that to be the case for all of our students across this district.”

Alternative programming

At the school board’s March 4 work session, former teachers at the Randolph Learning Center — a Black-majority, project-based school of choice formerly housed on the current MNSA campus — reminded the board of its painful removal from 90 Montford Ave. in 2015.

After 10 years, the district moved the RLC to trailers on the city’s south side to give Isaac Dickson Elementary a temporary home on Montford Avenue while its own campus was being renovated, according to multiple former RLC teachers. Those trailers turned out to be leaky and moldy, according to former teacher and current Asheville High School Principal Derek Edwards, forcing the school to quickly be moved to spare space at AHS and AMS and subsequently disbanded.

“In my nearly 20 years in the district, moving the school into trailers was the worst thing we’ve done,” Edwards told the board March 4.

The district made other efforts to establish an alternative program in the intervening years, but no version of the program has had a dedicated home since 2015.

The current ECA has 30 students, four teachers, one administrator and no school nurse, and is limited by the constraints that come with renting a space not designed to house a school, said Randall Johnson, the program’s director.

ALL STUDENTS: Asheville City Board of Education Chair George Sieburg, left, voted to close Montford North Star Academy on March 11 because he said the district must ensure it is giving all students a chance to succeed, not just a few. Board member Liza Kelly, far right, was one of two board members who voted against the closure. Photo by Greg Parlier

“They do not have the parent support that other students have in our district. We want to talk about equity, now is the time for equity. Our students need a place to learn, a place to call home,” Johnson told the board March 4. “Please board, consider these students to be your personal students. To be the students of North Asheville, to be the students of Montford North Star. These students come from southside Asheville, and we do not get the same treatment as other students in our district. We are in a great place, but we need a home and staff.”

According to Johnson, the ECA recently earned nationwide recognition for how it addresses mental and behavioral health issues for students with difficult home situations and will host school administrators from across the state in April to showcase its work. (The program does not have a website or any apparent online presence, however.)

Referencing the board’s working definition of equity, Fehrman challenged the board to consider if the district is practicing what it preaches. Equity “removes structural barriers to opportunity and resources, and results in the erasure of bias and disproportionate student outcomes based on race,” she said at the March 4 meeting.

“This is not an easy decision,” she added. “But when I started reflecting, I thought about the structural barriers in place. Is this an opportunity to remove some of these barriers? Hearing the story of Randolph, we have not centered what the students need [in past decisions].”

Final decision

After two failed motions by Kelly and Carter on March 11, board member Sarah Thornburg made a motion to close MNSA next year.

“Montford North Star is excellent. This was never about it not being excellent. But it is about making sure that all 3,800 kids in our system also get something excellent,” she said.

Carter, who moved for the board to slow things down by transitioning MNSA to the Asheville Middle campus in 2025-26 after a year of sharing space with ECA on Montford Avenue, said he was concerned with the district’s lack of a strategic plan. He acknowledged that frequent superintendent turnover contributed to the district’s lack of holistic planning.

“We are between a rock and another rock and another rock, and we have done our best to address calls for increasing staff salaries. We’ve done our best to make sure that our kids are getting what they need. But at the end of the day, unfortunately, there’s not a pot of money out there that’s never-ending that can continue to fund the things that we have,” he said.

After the vote and a few emotional outbursts from parents on their way out, parent Patricia Simpson, who had previously advocated to keep MNSA open, stood to express her own change of opinion in front of the board.

“I really appreciate this board for making the decision to put those kids [from ECA] back into a school that was promised to them,” she said. “Although my son will not be at Montford North Star next year, which I was hoping he would be, those kids deserve to have what they were promised. So thank you.”


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2 thoughts on “Montford North Star Academy to close and consolidate with Asheville Middle

  1. Churyl

    The board did not sit somberly. They smiled as families and students cried and grieved. This is what really happened. One of the board members did not like MNSA and they did everything they could to close it. Sara Thornburg is a horrible person. I’ve heard her say terrible terrible things about APS parents. I am sure others on that board are guilty of unprofessional behavior as well. They are sending 84 disadvantaged youths plus physically and intellectually disabled children to a school where they don’t feel like they will have success to advanced 32 youth that MNSA would have welcomed with open arms. I hope ACS goes down. The behavior of Dr. F and the board is not acceptable. Having different numbers every single time they presented, cannot possibly be accurate or based on evidence. They were hateful to parents in that meeting. I equate them to that crazy Wanda lady who mismanaged Asheville city funds. Vote them out! vote them out!

  2. John Brigham

    The outburst was exaggerated. there were comments, but no real outburst.

    The video can be reached at this is at the very very end of the meeting.

    It was pretty dramatic. I think that the School Board handled a difficult situation about as well as possible.

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