Parent’s story highlights difficulties connecting with Asheville City Schools

TINY ADVOCATE: Four-year-old Ivy Shea loves going to preschool at Asheville Primary School. Her mom, Sara Shea, says Ivy has thrived at the school. Photo courtesy of Shea

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.

MOTHER LOAD: Sara Shea says she feels guilty about not being able to participate in more of the public discussions around the future of Asheville Primary School. As a single mom without evening child care, she finds it difficult to attend those sessions. Shown here with Ivy, 4, and Mazy, the family dog. Photo courtesy of Shea

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.”



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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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11 thoughts on “Parent’s story highlights difficulties connecting with Asheville City Schools

  1. Jennifer Ward

    Our family has also had challenging interactions with Dr. Freeman. Emails and letters to him are either not acknowledged or (in one case) received an unprofessional response. I am disappointed with his lack of leadership and unwillingness to take responsibility for his role in these difficult situations.

  2. We Need A Functional School Board

    There is no shortage of disparaging, dismissive, and condescending responses to community emails. from Freeman. Clearly, he is a man of a specific character and does not view himself as part of our community. Asheville deserves a Superintendent who is a champion of the community, not of his own early retirement. We deserve so much better.

  3. Matt

    Seems like things would be a lot smoother in Dr. Freeman’s world if not for the pesky parents and students.

  4. Love My Community

    I heard Dr. Freeman told ACS faculty and staff that he’d be nice to them if they were nice to him. I didn’t think that’s how public education worked.

  5. Michele Torino

    I am dismayed by Gene Freeman, stuck in an old, outdated model of top down, hierarchical leadership. Where are we supposed to find you to walk up and talk to you Gene? What in the world is uncivil about people expressing their concerns and dissatisfaction?

  6. Jacob Biba

    It seems like the superintendent would have benefited from a Montessori education as a child.

  7. Jamie Beasley

    So, your stance is that she is lying about her phone call? For $250,000 per year salary, can’t you just say something like, “I am so sorry this has been your experience. Let’s have a conversation tomorrow?”

    Why did parents from your old district reach out to parents in the Asheville district to earn people about you? What that also a difficult district? Is there a pattern here?

  8. Mike R.

    Asheville City Schools are faced with a difficult dilemma.

    First, they have to cover the normal administrative heirarchy (as any school system would) except it is for a small student population, in comparison to other school districts. This results in an oversize chunk of the overall budget for a small school system.

    Secondly, many of Buncombe County’s poorest attend ACS schools. These children nationally struggle to succeed in any school system. ACS is restricted by a skewed budget in terms of what they can provide.

    Thirdly, the accountability structure for ACS has been antiquated with City Council appointed school board members. This means defacto that Asheville City Council has had overall responsibility/accountability for ACS; but that leadership has been spotty at best and generally missing. And why not? Most cities have long ago realized that their City Government has enough to handle without also managing the school system. Not Asheville, of course.

    The quickest, most efficient and most economical approach is to give this mess up and merge with Buncombe County Schools; again like the overwhelming majority of schools districts in the state. New name: Asheville Buncombe Schools (ABS).

    We will get greater cost efficiencies (or if you want to look at another way……more money to the pupils instead of adminstration). We will get greater choices for our students and parents AND we will get greater accountability across the system.

    Afraid of the change?? Don’t be. Look around the state. It works. And keeping on what we’ve been doing doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

  9. Enlightened Enigma

    Controlled by EVIL democrackkk socialists. Get YOUR child OUT of government screwls as FAST as you CAN !!!
    Government screwls are evil indoctrination centers of low self esteem and hatred for America.

  10. Enlightened Enigma

    City council, ACS and BCS are ALL RACISTS for resisting consolidation!!!

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