“We did it,” said Honor Moor, founder of the Asheville City Schools District Wide Parent Group on Facebook. “We are getting an elected school board.”
Moor’s remarks to the audience of roughly 100 people at the Asheville City Schools Board of Education candidate forum April 22 acknowledged the big changes underway in local school leadership. The current five-member board, appointed by Asheville City Council, is transitioning to an elected body and expanding to seven seats. As outlined in November legislation by the N.C. General Assembly, four members will be picked this election cycle, with the remaining three elected in 2024.
The forum, hosted at A-B Tech by the Asheville City Association of Educators in partnership with Moor’s thousand-strong Facebook group and the Asheville High School Student Government Association, offered parents, teachers and students their first look at candidates vying to represent the Asheville school district’s first elected board.
Nine candidates are on the ballot, including Pepi Acebo, president of the Montford North Star Academy Parent Teacher Organization; former Asheville City Schools teacher Liza English-Kelly; youth movement instructor Miri Massachi; attorney Amy Ray; housing counselor and OnTrack WNC program coordinator Rebecca Strimer; attorney Sarah Thornburg; and former U.S. Marine and JROTC instructor Jesse J. Warren.
William Young Jr., a longtime employee of the Asheville City School system and father of former Asheville City Council member Keith Young, is also running, although he did not attend the April 22 forum. Also absent was Sara Shea, who will appear on the ballot but told Xpress April 25 that she was withdrawing from the race. (More information about each candidate can be found in Xpress’ Primary Voter Guide at avl.mx/bip.)
Those candidates elected to the board will face an eventful first term. The new members will help pick a new superintendent after the recently announced November retirement of Superintendent Gene Freeman. Asheville City Schools also has some of the largest achievement and opportunity gaps between Black and white students anywhere in the state, and the system is experiencing both a wave of resignations and declining financial reserves.
With so many changes and challenges ahead, Xpress rounded up a few highlights of the evening.
Consolidation with Buncombe County Schools
All of the candidates agreed that consolidating Asheville City Schools with Buncombe County Schools was a bad idea. Some community members have floated consolidation as a possible answer to the Asheville system’s ongoing fiscal woes.
Acebo maintained that consolidation would require Buncombe County to raise its school taxes to meet those of the Asheville district, which may not be welcome news to all county residents.
“On a financial level, that means that we’ve got to have the same tax rates. And I’m not sure that Buncombe County as a whole is ready for that,” he said. “But I think that there are parts of the city of Asheville that are not currently in the Asheville City Schools district that might be ready for that and might be ready to join us.”
Meanwhile, Massachi said that Asheville City Schools students, parents and teachers are a “very unique” ecosystem of people. “I think our needs here are very different,” she said.
Ray added that she wasn’t in favor of consolidation. “If that’s where I thought we were headed, I would not be sitting here tonight.
“We are in a crisis moment right now. Let’s not kid ourselves. We are at risk of consolidation if we don’t get our house in order, … [which] means that we have to have a system in which our teachers feel supported and want to teach here,” Ray continued.
Students and mental health
After two years of virtual learning, masking and other COVID-19 safety protocols, the mental health needs of students may be at an all-time high. Daniel Withrow, president of the Asheville City Association of Educators, asked candidates what specific mental health interventions for students they would advocate.
“It’s easy to forget that we are living through a slow-moving trauma, and our children are being hurt. What has happened over the course of the last two years is not normal and is not OK,” said Strimer. “I’m very impressed by the model of Asheville Middle School’s new in-school health center. … I see that as a long-term solution, because I’m very wary of bringing in support with temporary money, only to face a fiscal cliff when that money’s gone.”
“I think the students probably know better than anybody what they’re struggling with, and some student-led initiatives that provide new ways of doing it would be worth pursuing,” added Thornburg.
Meanwhile, Warren advocated for a more hands-on approach.
“I would love to go into your classroom each and every day and just walk in to help kids, see them in the hallway and see them in the cafeteria,” said Warren. “I’d just say, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ You’d be surprised how much love that a kid will receive from that.”
“The closing of Asheville Primary was highly contentious,” Moore said to the candidates, referencing a December board decision to shutter the Montessori magnet school. “Would you support the continued closure of additional Asheville city schools in order to balance the budget?
While no candidates said they agreed with the closing of schools, many left the option on the table should the school system continue to lose money.
“I am not in favor of closing schools. It’s not something I want to do. One thing that I will do at all times if I’m elected to the Board of Education is be honest with you. I will not make promises I can’t keep. I will not tell you things because I think it’s what you want to hear,” said Strimer.
English-Kelly explained that she began working at Asheville Primary School in 2017, the year it was first established.
“I watched and witnessed how the city schools did not stand behind its own school from its infancy,” she said. “Reactionary measures, like closing a school that is successfully building relationships and transforming the face of education and expanding access to programs that are typically limited to people who are able to pay private tuition, is unacceptable. It will not fix decades of fiduciary mismanagement. We have to do better.”