Sara Shea has done her best to weigh in on the proposed closure of Asheville Primary School, where her daughter, Ivy, is a student.
But as a single mom, Shea hasn’t been able to make a lot of the evening community input sessions. That’s the time of day when Ivy, 4, is wrapping up the interventions she needs to address developmental delays resulting from her rare genetic condition, Wiedemann-Steiner syndrome.
Shea’s daughter is one of about 1,000 people in the world diagnosed with the syndrome, making her “literally one in a billion,” her mom says. The services Ivy has received at the APS preschool have helped her thrive despite her challenges.
But pandemic-related shutdowns interrupted those services at a critical point in Ivy’s development. Without other child care options, the shutdowns also forced Shea to leave her real estate job and rely on unemployment.
Unable to get answers about what the proposed school closure would mean for her daughter, Shea says she has written multiple letters. And at a March 16 public hearing, Shea described her concerns to the Asheville City Board of Education.
“I’ve tried to comment with Superintendent Gene Freeman and left messages three separate times with his secretary to discuss my daughter’s return to school and the future of her preschool program and special services within the program,” Shea said.
“I’ve never even received a call back from his secretary,” she continued. “I’m disappointed that no one returns my calls or seems to care about my daughter’s success.”
Holding the squirming child, Shea said, “She was really devastated when things shut down for COVID. I mean, literally banging her head against the wall and giving herself black-and-blue marks because she didn’t understand why her schedule suddenly changed and her whole routine collapsed.
“I just want to have some more conversations about special needs and what that will look like if things change,” Shea concluded.
Speaking with Xpress after the meeting, Freeman cited Shea’s comments as an example of what he describes as a “lack of civility” in the Asheville community. “I mean, when I took this job, had I known how difficult the community was, I’m not so sure that it would have been something that I was eager to jump into,” he said. (In his previous role as the superintendent of the Fox Chapel School District in Pennsylvania, Freeman sent cease-and-desist letters to at least six parents who criticized him on social media.)
“When I hear, ‘I called your office three times,’ and there’s Kim [Jones, listed as an administrative assistant on the district’s website] right there — I’ve never received a phone call,” Freeman said. “It’s things like that. It’s just a very hard community.”
Freeman invited Xpress to a meeting at the district’s central office the following day to discuss ACS’ preschool plans. Melissa Hedt, recently promoted to deputy superintendent, was among the seven staff members who participated. Addressing a flurry of online discussion, she said that, instead of spreading false information on social media, community members should contact the system directly with questions.
“We’re not being called in, we’re being called out,” Hedt said.
Asked again about Shea, who had separately confirmed to Xpress her repeated attempts to reach district administrators by phone, the superintendent insisted, “We never had a phone call.”
Freeman said it would be more appropriate for parents to share their concerns outside of a public forum. “Anybody could walk up to me and say, ‘I called you, and you didn’t call me back.’ You don’t have to announce it.”
Upon hearing more details of Shea’s situation, Freeman took her phone number and, according to Shea, called her the following day.
“I have more insight into what [Freeman] is struggling with,” Shea told Xpress after the conversation. “And I feel more assured that my daughter will not lose any of her services even if her preschool classroom is relocated.”
The superintendent, she continued, “is doing his utmost in challenging times.” Still, Shea said, “I feel sad that my child will lose her familiar classroom, familiar playground and familiar garden at APS. But I am confident that she will not lose her community of teachers, aides, therapists and friends.”
For his part, Freeman called Asheville “a great place” after the March 16 meeting but wondered about his potential successor at the end of his four-year contract: “Who are we going to get to come in here next?
“It’s the most challenging district I’ve ever worked in, and I’ve worked in some challenging districts. And it’s the civility. It’s just very different.”