Parents of students at Vance Elementary School in West Asheville have turned out in force at two recent meetings to share concerns about city plans to upgrade an existing softball field on school grounds. The proposed change adds a fence that would divide an open play area currently used by Vance students during recess and for after-school activities. Parents said the new fence would restrict how teachers can use the space during the school day and reduce its availability for after-school programs during sports practices and games.
Community members first learned of the plan specifics at the beginning of February, and Asheville Parks and Recreation and Asheville City Schools staff have had some explaining to do ever since.
At a meeting of the Asheville City Board of Education on Feb. 18, Parks and Recreation Department Director Roderick Simmons stressed that the changes were necessary to comply with Title IX standards for the Asheville High School girls softball team, which uses the field now for its team, which averages 15-17 players.
“These improvements address gender equity for girls and ADA compliance,” Simmons said.
Simmons also said the field will be used for sports such as field hockey, soccer and lacrosse, particularly during the planned two-year closure of Memorial Stadium for renovations beginning in spring 2020.
The city plans to spend about $400,000 in bond funds for the Vance ballfield upgrades, which include turf and lighting improvements in addition to the new fence.
At the school board meeting and at a follow-up meeting held at the school on the evening of Feb. 27, Simmons called the plans a “win-win” for the city of Asheville and city school students.
Vance parents, however, have largely expressed a different opinion of the changes. Ginger Huebner told the school board, “Vance hosts three after-school programs on this site, serving over 165 kids until 6 p.m. … When you scoot the fence all the way in that 300′ outfield, how are we all going to coexist?” Huebner’s children went to Vance and now attend Asheville Middle School; Huebner directs one of the after-school programs at the school,
“I think you can see by the turnout here, the phone calls to City Council, our emails, our response, that Vance in general — I don’t speak for every parent here or every student — does not feel like this is a win-win,” said Vance parent Marissa Brooks at the Feb. 27 meeting.
“Having a giant long fence with small gates does not feel like a win-win for our community,” Brooks continued as others applauded, “and I am tired of hearing win-win when we do not feel like we are winning anything. We feel like we are dramatically losing and not getting what we need from you guys.”
Outgoing school board member James Lee, who announced in January that he will be relocating to take a job in Ohio, stood to make the case for why the changes amount to a win for the district.
Because the city of Asheville will foot the bill for the improvements, Lee said, the district can deploy that money for other purposes. “We, as a school district, have very limited funding, and we want to make sure that we are paying teachers fair wages, that we are invested in this equity model that we are trying to implement in our culture change as a school — we’re not having to pull from those programs to be able to do this for this ball field.”
Parent Bobby Pope turned to face Lee and addressed him directly, sparring over whose turn it was to speak. “We’re all open to a shared-use facility. We’re all open to Title IX and improving it for the women. I have two daughters. I want them to play softball on this field, and on an improved field one day,” Pope said. “But just keep in mind, we’re here day in and day out, 10 months out of the year, and we just want an equal say in the commentary period for how this can be a win-win.”
Lee shot back, “The 4,000 kids in the district is meaningful to me, too.” As parents called out requests for him to remain to discuss the project, Lee left the auditorium. “I do care about this project,” he said as he departed.
School board member Martha Geithner, as well as Asheville City Schools Director of Student Services Eric Howard and spokesperson Ashley-Michelle Thublin, sat in the audience area of the auditorium with parents, while other district staff, including Superintendent Denise Patterson, sat along the back wall of the room. Parents later observed that board members and school staff did not engage in small group conversations.
Dawa Hitch jumped into the breach, declaring, “The way this has been designed is for there to be a dialogue.” Over the objections of several parents, Hitch, the city of Asheville’s director of communications and public engagement, repeatedly urged the crowd to separate into breakout sessions.
“We’ve got a ton of sticky notes,” she said. “We want to be sure that we’ve heard all of these concerns, and if you could write them down on those sticky notes, you can be sure that we will post them to our website so that you can be assured that your thoughts were captured.”
Persistent parents continued posing questions, asking whether girls softball regulations actually require a backfield fence when a large amount of open space is present, how the outfield would be used for other sports, how the space would be scheduled to avoid conflicts with school activities, whether construction bids have been received and when construction would take place.
“I do feel like a breakout session will kind of marginalize us and take away our voice,” said parent Chad Brooks. “I feel like all of our parents are pretty much on the same page here, and to break us out, then we can’t hear each other as well.”
“It’s a standard practice that we have. And across the nation, it’s a best practice,” Hitch responded. “We want to make sure that we give time for both people who are introverted and extroverted, and no one is excluded.”
“One thing that I was going to say, and I’ll just tell you so that I can get it off my chest,” said parent Rachel Flaherty to Xpress after the crowd moved into smaller groups, “is that the upgrades James Lee talked about are the fence and the grass.” Since parents have serious concerns about the impact of the fence, she said, “The only thing we are getting out of that is the grass.”
Flaherty, who is in her ninth year of involvement at the school and represents the Vance Parent-Teacher Organization on the School Improvement Team, said she’s sick of the district casting white parents as caring only about their own children’s use of the facility.
“I mean, my kids have a yard, and we play rec sports, so I wouldn’t be so passionate if I wasn’t worried about kids that don’t have a yard and aren’t signed up for sports,” Flaherty said. “This is like heaven for them to be able to run around in this field without this fence.”
If the district’s concern is truly equity, Flaherty told Xpress, “Who’s going to play men’s softball and lacrosse and soccer? These are not Pisgah [View Apartments public housing community] dads. This is fees and people paying. This is not helping. From what I know, these are white-people sports.”
The perils of email
In an email to Vance parents dated Feb. 7, Superintendent Denise Patterson wrote, “The softball field at Vance Elementary School has not received any substantial improvements since the city of Asheville renovated the facility in 1997. This improvement is intended to achieve compliance with the anti-discrimination and civil rights law Title IX.”
In a second email dated Feb. 12, Patterson pushed back against the tone of parent complaints, writing, “We ask that you honor the ACSWay by giving and receiving respect and serving as and being a role model. Our students share their thoughts in a respectful way, and we hope that you will too.”
Patterson proceeded to call on parents to volunteer in the classroom to help the district reduce the academic achievement gap between white and black students, again the largest in the state in the 2017-18 school year. “We need help with volunteering in schools to serve as a lunch buddy, classroom guest reader and advocate for more behavior specialists and social workers,” she wrote. “We need one of each of those roles filled immediately in each of our 10 schools.”
“She’s told us we shouldn’t care so much about a field; we should get involved in the classroom with the equity issue,” commented Flaherty. “There’s parents in here four days a week. And this equity issue and the achievement gap — we know these kids. These are faces and names. These aren’t numbers. We love these kids.”
Pope chimed in, “It’s not like we’re totally against the project. We just want to be heard.”
Wryly acknowledging the city and district for accepting some feedback and making some revisions to the renovation plans, Pope said, “To their credit, they want to get the sticky notes.”
Still, he concluded, “Our considerations weren’t taken into consideration, and that’s why all of this is happening now.”