BY KATE FISHER
When we moved to Asheville in summer 1995, a headline in the daily paper announced that only one in four African-American boys graduated from Asheville High School. It astonished us. But I don’t remember a protest or an outcry. I don’t remember even a whisper.
Flash forward to December 2018. Among its accolades for “No. 1 Foodie City” and “Most Hospitable U.S. City,” Asheville tops another list, this time coming in first place among North Carolina school systems in the achievement gap: the difference in how white and black students perform on standardized tests in our schools. With only 12.1 percent of the system’s African-American students in grades 3-8 scoring proficient or higher, it’s not only the largest chasm between white and black student success in the state — it’s the lowest academic proficiency for black students in any of the state’s 115 districts.
We didn’t start failing these kids over the last few years or under the last few superintendents. We have been in the business of failing black children in Asheville for decades, maybe for as long as there has been a desegregated school system. But this inequitable education hurts all of our children. It builds kids who believe that fairness is optional, that privilege is acceptable and that hard work is less important than luck of the draw.
There is plenty of blame to share. Asheville’s history of redlining and urban renewal. Our lousy economic base. Our unwillingness to right historical wrongs. The school system itself. We, the citizens, who allow systems to continue to fail our children.
But pointing fingers is not useful. Every second we spend on blaming allows for more failure. Those of you who do not find yourselves in schools daily can look away. I no longer can. I simply cannot look at another child we have failed. And now there are multiple generations of such faces.
In the ‘70s, the Asheville-Buncombe County Local Government Study Commission was called to study the region’s school systems. After over a year of work, this commission recommended the consolidation of Asheville City and Buncombe County schools. But the work of this commission was never publicly released, and no official action was taken. The members of the commission were given plaques of commendation, and that was that.
We are left with two separate school districts. The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners holds the purse strings for both systems and retains some powers to keep the districts accountable to the people of the region. However, the superintendents for both Asheville City and Buncombe County are empowered to run their school systems. Similarly, a Board of Education advises and oversees each district.
Buncombe County’s board is an elected body, while Asheville’s is appointed by City Council, which then has no power to oversee its operations. The Asheville City Board of Education has one main job: to hire or fire a superintendent. While the board can recommend initiatives, express support or question the superintendent’s directives, the system’s central office makes all operational decisions.
Oversight in this kind of system — where the board is appointed by a body with no regulatory authority, in a process closed to school employees, families and the community as a whole — is more than a little messed up. It is completely unaccountable, open to all kinds of corruption and anti-democratic, not to mention a lousy use of resources. I believe we will never be able to fix the inequities in our schools so long as there is no transparency, no accountability and no trust.
How can we solve this problem? We could ask our local state legislators to introduce a bill in the General Assembly to create an elected school board for Asheville City Schools. I have spoken on multiple occasions with Sens. Terry Van Duyn and Chuck Edwards to advocate for this change, and I think we could get such a law passed. But I worry that we are too late for that option. I know it is too late for the children in the system right now.
A second option is to ask the Buncombe County Commissioners to consolidate Asheville City Schools into the Buncombe County system. Such a move would fold the Asheville central office into the county’s administrative department, and our roughly 4,400 students would attend a newly created Asheville district of Buncombe County schools. The voters would decide whether to continue to pay a supplemental tax for the district so we could still have additional monies to spend on our kids. All county residents would elect an Asheville representative to the Buncombe County board, who would be required to live within the Asheville district.
Though either solution would be a big change, fear should not stop us from exploring our options. We have children to serve and we aren’t serving them. With one of these changes in place, we could begin to repair the damage caused by decades of secret meetings and closed doors. We could build community and direct resources to our students. But until there is accountability, I have no faith in a system that excludes its stakeholders and does not focus on the kids.
We owe our children a better system, one where the kids are central to every decision made, every day, every time.
Kate Fisher has been a parent, volunteer, coach and student advocate in the Asheville City Schools since 2005. Among other efforts, she helped construct the Isaac Dickson Elementary playground and learning garden, served on the district’s superintendent selection committee and guided use of a federal IMPACT grant for technology. She’s also known as an outspoken booster of Asheville students and passionate protector on their behalf.