BY STACY CLAUDE
The Asheville City Board of Education’s extremely disappointing Dec. 13 vote to permanently shut down Asheville Primary School represents a significant loss for the entire city. This abrupt turnabout has left families, teachers and especially students reeling. In the space of a few weeks, we’ve gone from being assured that the school would remain intact — and would, in fact, expand to fifth grade next year — to facing imminent outright closure.
Thus, under the pretext of a budget crisis and scarcity within the school district, the Board of Education and central office have pitted schools and families against each other. Failed leadership, years of financial mismanagement, a bloated central office that’s being paid for with mostly local funds and a total lack of long-term planning have left many parents and teachers completely disheartened about what used to be a sought-after and growing district. Perhaps the most difficult part of it all was seeing high school administrators and central office staff speak out against one of their own system’s school communities at the board meeting, particularly with so many children there watching and participating.
Unquestionably, some speakers made insensitive comments, including microaggressions and worse, and it’s always appropriate to call those out. But no one can control what other people choose to say at the lectern, and what one individual says isn’t automatically true for everyone in the room.
Notwithstanding the extreme ugliness that occurred at the meeting, however, the reasons given for the closure just don’t hold water. If they’d presented credible data demonstrating that closing Asheville Primary would benefit the district as a whole and that the money saved would be put toward an actual plan to close the achievement gap and specifically serve students of color, it would still have been hard, but I truly believe more families could have accepted it.
Instead, recently appointed board member George Sieburg made a motion to close the school based, he said, on his feelings: “While [APS parents] feel that the Montessori program was a means toward eliminating the racial gap, I feel the opposite, which is why I voted the way I did.” And while Mr. Sieburg is entitled to his feelings, it’s misleading to suggest that proponents of the school are also relying solely on emotion. In fact, there’s a huge amount of data from other public school districts — notably including those in our neighboring state of South Carolina, a national leader in public Montessori programs — specifically citing their ability to help close the achievement gap.
Asheville City Schools has had five years to support and grow this project, yet they chose not to. Meanwhile, the district has been failing to meet the needs of its Black students for over a decade. During all that time, what other solutions have been tried?
Talk is cheap
If the system had truly wanted to do something, it could have supported, grown and collected data on Asheville Primary’s Montessori program. Instead, all we’ve been given are more empty words, beginning with the district’s tagline: “Excellence With Equity.”
I’ve been showing up at board meetings ever since the school was established, advocating for expanding the program to higher grades (as I was initially promised when enrolling my child), asking the district to support and collaborate with families and, finally, simply trying to keep the school open. It certainly hasn’t helped that during this period, there have been three superintendents, three principals and only two consistent board members — neither of whom has ever supported Asheville Primary.
And meanwhile, one of the stated goals for both the Montessori magnet school and the system as a whole was to reduce or eliminate the achievement gap. Full stop: Despite never having been supported by the district, never being allowed to significantly increase enrollment and — amid constant uncertainty and conflicting communications about whether the district would expand to the next grade, relocate or shut down the school — families still came, and teachers still worked incredibly hard and did amazing things for kids.
I can only speak for myself, but having worked closely with many other Asheville Primary families over the years, I’m confident that we want what’s best for all the district’s students, not just ours. Mr. Sieburg’s contention — in a letter to the school board, City Council and the county commissioners — that “the numbers speak for themselves” is flagrantly misleading. Claiming that it would cost “close to $54,000 per student” to repair the building is inaccurate, because not all of the cited repairs are urgent or even necessary to ensure student safety. And if they were realistically assessed and spread out over a number of years as part of a comprehensive financial plan for a school that was allowed to expand its enrollment, the outcome might have been very different. No one would expect the district to spend that amount of money per pupil for anything; this fundamentally misleading claim reflects the fact that this was all done so quickly and with no inclusive process.
That’s just one small example of why we’ve been asking for a long-term plan for the school since 2017, but there are many more. When the superintendent says that closing Asheville Primary won’t solve the district’s budget crisis but will merely buy us a year or two, it’s obvious that there is no long-term plan, no big-picture thinking. And that begs the question: What comes next? Shutting down the next-smallest school? Laying off teachers?
If we’d had an inclusive process, there could have been a viable solution. The district is obviously able to do that: Just consider the work the task force did to rename Lucy S. Herring Elementary School. Shutting down a school is a huge move: Why was there no task force in the case of Asheville Primary? No search for solutions? No stakeholder input beyond a public hearing held with less than 24 hours’ notice that closing the school was even being considered. What’s really going on here?
Additionally, the building at 441 Haywood Road is full of history. Generations of families have sent their children there. It is centrally located, directly on a bus line, and has 15 classrooms already designed and licensed for preschool. Don’t we all want universal pre-K? It’s no secret that there’s a critical lack of affordable preschool options in Asheville. Creating a long-term plan and budget for keeping students in that building, leaving the Montessori magnet school intact and allowing it to grow while expanding pre-K would have been the most forward-thinking option for the future of our district — and our community.
I’m sad about the school board’s decision. I’m really sad for my kids, who are struggling so much with this and asking questions I can’t answer. Are they going to be fine? Yes. Will whatever school they end up at be fine? Yes.
But the point is, this is not just about my kids. And it’s a real shame that in April, when nationally known educational consultant Zaretta Hammond comes here to speak about equity, access and sustainability in public Montessori programs, our district has forfeited the chance to be held up as a wonderful example of those admirable goals.
Stacy Claude has lived in Asheville for 18 years. She works in the local music industry and has two children in the city schools.