A $10,000 scholarship for local Black students is the subject of a lawsuit by a group headed by a former Asheville City Council member.
Carl Mumpower, president of WNC Citizens for Equality Inc. and a former chair of the Buncombe County Republican Party, filed a civil suit Oct. 11. It names the city of Asheville, City Manager Debra Campbell, the scholarship-granting nonprofit Asheville City Schools Foundation and Copland Arnold Rudolph, executive director of ACSF, as defendants.
The City of Asheville Scholarship is described in the ACSF 2021-22 scholarships catalog as being “for Black/African American students who are committed to pursuing a career in education.” The award is $2,500 per year, renewable for four years, “subject to satisfactory performance and progress.” Per the city, the scholarship will be awarded “in perpetuity to Black high school students within Asheville City Schools.”
WNC Citizens for Equality is representing three students who it says would otherwise apply for the scholarship but are ineligible because of their race. Mumpower declined to identify for Xpress the parents of the three students — one senior and two juniors — represented in the lawsuit. “The families have requested confidentiality per the recommendation of legal counsel and for fear of ridicule and retaliation,” he wrote in an email.
The city donated funds for the scholarship from money left over after settling claims from a class-action lawsuit about fees paid by property developers. On April 13, City Council voted to approve the division of nearly $950,000 remaining from that settlement pool between two entities: ACSF and the racial justice group CoThinkk. (The donation to CoThinkk is the subject of a second lawsuit filed by WNC Citizens for Equality Vice President John Miall.)
ACSF used its award to establish The City of Asheville Scholarship, as well as a second scholarship for people of color who are educators or staff at Asheville City Schools and are pursuing additional education or certification. While WNC Citizens for Equality’s lawsuit claims both scholarships “constitute illegal discrmination,” it specifically challenges only the first scholarship, alleging that the defendants are “violating its members’ rights to equal protection and freedom from racial discrimination under the North Carolina Constitution.”
Mumpower’s group partnered with Judicial Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative educational nonprofit, and Legal Insurrection Foundation, a conservative nonprofit, on the lawsuit. “We need all the help we can get and are grateful that these two watchdog groups saw merit in our intention to bring formal action against the city of Asheville in federal court,” he wrote, adding, “This is one of those David versus Goliath moments.”
City Attorney Brad Branham declined to comment, citing Asheville’s policy on active litigation. He notes that no date has yet been set for a court hearing on the matter.
To be eligible for any ACSF scholarship, a senior must complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid and demonstrate financial need. A student must also plan to attend a two- or four-year university, maintain a grade point average of at least 2.75 or 3.0 and support the community through volunteer service.
Eligible seniors do not apply for specific scholarships. “There’s nothing here that says, ‘If you’re white, you can’t apply to this scholarship,’” explains ACSF’s Rudolph. “‘Or if you’re Black, you can’t, or if you’re not a field hockey player, [you can’t].’”
Instead, students complete a single scholarship application, which is shared with a committee of 16 community members, alumni and teachers. Each application is anonymized and read by at least two committee members, with candidates then being interviewed by adults from the community. The committee matches students for the scholarships that it deems are most suitable.
Rudolph says that scholarship donors are empowered to make requirements for award eligibility. For example, a student must have a history of playing field hockey to be eligible for the Bill Dechant Memorial Scholarship. The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville donates the funds for the Mel Hetland Scholarship, which is “awarded to a student who identifies as belonging to the Global Majority (e.g. BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color]),” and preference is given to those who are the first in their family to attend college.
“We stand by our scholarship process 100%,” Rudolph says. In recent years, ACSF has awarded scholarships to as many as 40 students. The first City of Asheville Scholarship was awarded in May 2021 to Jayla Williams to attend N.C. Central University and pursue a degree in education.
“Our organization believes that public education is a vital part of a successful democracy and a key element in ensuring the success of all children,” Rudolph tells Xpress. “We invite anyone who’s truly interested in supporting our Asheville City School students to pursue their dreams to join us in our efforts to redress historical inequities and commit to uplifting our school communities towards justice and opportunities for everyone.”