The Overlook with Matt Peiken

PART 1: School Boards Under Scrutiny | Leaders of Asheville City and Buncombe County Schools

October 02, 2023 Matt Peiken Episode 92
The Overlook with Matt Peiken
PART 1: School Boards Under Scrutiny | Leaders of Asheville City and Buncombe County Schools
Show Notes Transcript

There’s no glory in serving on a school board, at least not in North Carolina. State legislatures control your policies and purse strings. Parents sling arrows at you online and at public meetings. There are efforts to turn school board elections into overtly partisan affairs and pass legislation forcing teachers away from certain books, curricula and even classroom conversations.

This is the first in a two-part conversation with board members George Sieburg and Amy Ray of the Asheville City Schools, and Ann Franklin and Amy Churchill of Buncombe County Schools. We talk about the responsibilities and considerations that go into their work, how control at the legislature affects and limits how school boards respond to conditions in their own districts, and the evolving social and political climate playing out at school board meetings.

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Matt Peiken: Let's talk about how the role of school boards has evolved and what the responsibilities and considerations that go into this work and what informs your work.

And I'm wondering if it's different on the city schools level versus the county schools level, George. Give me a sense from Asheville City Schools of that, the broad responsibilities of school board members. 

George Sieburg: So there's the general kind of policy roles of the school board that's set out by the state of North Carolina, which is be fiscal stewards of the district.

 Hire and evaluate the superintendent. Set policy for the district. Those are the kind of the big three things that school boards are tasked with. And then the less kind of defined is be advocates for the district. Be front facing members of the public where you are, in your board role advocating for the district and advocating for the employees 

Matt Peiken: within it.

How many schools are in the Asheville City Schools purview and high school, middle school and? 

George Sieburg: Yeah so there are ten schools within our district. We have five elementary schools, two middle schools, two high schools, and then we have a program called the career academy. 

Matt Peiken: Okay. And is that different on the county level? How that all that was described aside from the number of schools?

Is that basically what happens at the county level? 

Amy Ray: Yes. 

Ann Franklin: The overriding rules that we follow are true for both of our systems. We have 45 schools in Buncombe County. And if you make me divide them up, I'm going to have to get it. No, 

Matt Peiken: you don't have to name all 45 schools. 

Ann Franklin: That's a really good thing.

We have six districts that feed together to make the 45 schools. And there are feeder schools that feed into each one of the district 

Matt Peiken: high schools. Now, are there board members representing each district? Yes. There are. Yes. And it's done geographically, or how are those districts defined? 

Ann Franklin: They're defined by the high school attendance area.

I represent the North Buncombe District. All the schools that are in the North Buncombe District, I work for all schools. And that needs to be very clear that is something that we work toward is to be equitable for all districts. But When people have an issue or want to talk about something in the North Buncombe district, they would contact me.

Okay. They can contact any of them, but they, I could be their voice. 

Matt Peiken: Got it. Now I'm curious from your vantage points, whether the job of a school board member has evolved much over the course of at least your personal experiences.

Can any of you speak to that to any degree? 

Amy Ray: This is Amy Ray. I'm a new school board member, so I've only been on the board since last December. I can't talk about an evolution that's occurred since I've been on the board. I will say that as a parent, and I've been a parent of at least one student in Asheville City Schools for 20 years, I have two that are still one in middle school and one in elementary school.

And during that time, I think the role of the board has evolved insofar as I think the board members are more publicly accountable. And of course, that's in part because we've gone to an election system in the city of Asheville. But also, just over time especially as we've faced challenges with numerous superintendents.

Over relatively short 10 years, board members have had to field more questions. But the fundamental issue, or the fundamental tasks, haven't changed. And I think the fundamental measure, which is what is best for students, and what is best for our educators, those are the measures that have always applied to every school board member over time.

I was 

Matt Peiken: wondering about the relationship of superintendents to school boards. And it seems to me, And tell me if this is a naive way of looking at it But school boards set the policies and superintendents implement the policies, correct? I'm just curious If that's so who is superintendent?

Why does that matter so much? In a way, I look at it as akin to a city manager, like in the city of Asheville, where city council sets policy, city manager just implements the policy. They're not, tell me if that is not true. Where do individual superintendents make a difference and how do boards react or pivot based on who is superintendent?

Amy Ray: I think they make an enormous difference. And I think your analogy to city government is, is I think would be an analogy to the presidency and they set policy, but I, as a member of an executive agency have to carry out that policy. I either do that well or I don't do it well, but it particularly for a superintendent.

That is the person who sets the tone for the district. Is it a district that listens to teachers? Is it a district that places students in the center of all conversations? Is that superintendent someone who welcomes feedback and interaction? I think that the superintendent makes an enormous amount of difference because after all, policy setting is one thing, but whether it's implemented in good faith and with skill is entirely up to the superintendent.

George Sieburg: I also go from the reverse as well. Superintendents typically have been educators have been worked in schools for a long time. Not all school board members have. And so superintendents are able to bring ideas. to the board to consider for a new policy. And so the superintendent is really setting the agenda more than the school board is.

Matt Peiken: Can you explain that a little more? If the policies come from the school board and the priorities come from the school board, How does the superintendent place his or her own stamp on that? Well, In North Carolina, it's 

George Sieburg: a little interesting versus other states in that the state government has a lot of control over, district policies.

It's written into this North Carolina constitution that guarantees citizens in North Carolina free public education, which means that the General Assembly has a lot of say on a lot of school policies. So a lot of what the school boards are given in terms of policy is coming from the state.

There's not always a lot of wiggle room around certain policies that a district can enact. And so It becomes a conversation between the district, the school board, and the superintendent about how does this policy impact what we're doing for our students. 

Ann Franklin: And is it legal? I see it as a a nice dance between the superintendent and the board.

In that our superintendent is attuned to what's going on in the state level. So that our decisions are made based on the law. And that we don't get outside that realm. And so for us, and I'm sure it's for Asheville City as well, It's a choreographed dance about The policies that are implemented based on the information and the law that comes from the state And then what the superintendent does to help us put those policies in 

Amy Ray: place.


Matt Peiken: I ask you? And I don't know if any of you have Enough time on the board to have seen the arc of how state politics play into what school boards can and can't do how the policies are shaped but has it always been this way? And I've heard the state called this it's a mother may I state I've heard that term used.

Has there always been that hand on setting school policies? And if so, what do you think? The school boards would like to do. That they can't do because of this quote mother may I state, I'll take 


Amy Churchill: one.

Yeah, please. So this is Amy Churchill, and I've been on the board for 10 years. And as long as I've been on the board, I'll give you an example, one of the big topics that I've heard about the lack of local control is with regards to the school calendar. And. Basically, what that is, is that the North Carolina General Assembly sets the dates when we can start and the dates when we can end and 


Matt Peiken: Does, Does that effectively change?

Curricula. Does it change? Absolutely. 

Amy Churchill: Explain how. I'll use for example our high schools. So the way that our calendar has to set up and align now is that our high schoolers that do end of course exams go home for the winter holidays, two weeks usually, and then have to come back and Work towards trying to do the end of course exam which I don't know if you go back to how you were in school, but I just remember Christmas time for me was that was the end of it.

I didn't really have to think about school until I came back in January. Our kids are, still having to try to review a lot of the stuff. To try to keep their minds fresh because they are having to take the Exams later and that's also I think a disadvantage nationally with like our advanced placement exams because we have Other states that have longer time and to Learn a particular class but yet the date for the exam is the same for everybody in the country.


Matt Peiken: the state mandates what the calendar looks like. What are some other things? Are there other examples about how the state either kind of restricts, puts bumpers on, or compels school districts to do certain things within the state? Classrooms themselves, what is taught, how things are taught that you think things would be done differently if you had more local control.

Ann Franklin: One of the most recent Rules that came down from the General Assembly is the training that we have in our K 5 classrooms. It's called a letters training. And it has mandated that we all teach using this content area and this 

Amy Ray: methodology. 

Matt Peiken: Can you explain this letters?

Amy Ray: Basically, and 

Ann Franklin: this is a simplistic statement. It's requiring that we teach phonics, and we teach phonics through this avenue. The letters training is teaching all of our teachers across the state of North Carolina how to implement this program, so that all students will have the benefit.


Matt Peiken: doesn't sound like necessarily a negative. That sounds like a positive. 

Ann Franklin: It might not be a negative, might be a positive, but all students don't learn the same way. I come from a teaching background, and all students don't learn the same way. If I couldn't, Absorb the phonics way of teaching.

Then the teacher's hamstrung it to go out and find another avenue 

Amy Ray: to 

Matt Peiken: teach. I know there's been a lot of controversy around reading curricula in particular, and I listened to this podcast there was this proponent of teaching reading in part or in large part by looking at pictures in a picture book and having students more or less guess what the next word is rather than reading out the word and it seems like phonics is actually teaching more of the actual reading than this other methodology.

Amy Ray: And 

Ann Franklin: some people are good at it, and some people aren't, so it's difficult, but that was legislated by the state. 

George Sieburg: Yeah. The science of reading is now the way that it's a movement across the country to get away, Matt, from what you were talking about, like the sight reading into more of the phonics.

The challenge is that with this mandate from the state, our elementary educators are having to do so much professional development outside of teaching time that cuts into whatever other kind of professional development the district might want to be doing. So if the district has a certain initiative, they're having to back off of that so that they can get in the time for the letters training because the state is mandated by a certain date.

All teachers need to be trained by this letters training. We're not saying the letters is a bad It's just when the state is putting, let's say, restrictions on a calendar, where you have to be done by what is the first week of June, I think, you have to, you can't start until the last week of August, and then you've got to fit in all of this letters training on top of whatever other professional development training our educators need and want. , that's an example of the challenge that the state gives us that we have to maneuver around. 

Matt Peiken: Let me pull on that thread a little bit. Is it that? State legislators who are mandating certain ways of doing things, it's not that these areas don't work or do work, it's not that so much, but they compel a school district to only go down that route, that there's only so much time to, you mentioned staff development, that There are things perhaps a superintendent and an individual school district might want their teachers to do, but there's literally not the time to do.

Is that part of this? 

Amy Churchill: Yes, 

Ann Franklin: it is. And the pressure that's on the school system to give opportunities for that training to occur. And then the teacher having The patent power, the energy to to absorb all of these skills and then to be able to implement those in the classroom. 

Matt Peiken: Are the people making these decisions at the state legislature?

Are they educators or are they informed by educators? Who is making these decisions? Ultimately, it's elected officials who are voting up or down on these proposals and proposing these bills. Correct. But, who is informing the very genesis of these bills? The very genesis of the legislation that leads to mandating school districts do X, Y, or Z.

Who is writing this legislation? 

George Sieburg: I wish I knew the exact answer to that, Matt, but what I'm, what I hope is that it's in conversation with Department of Public Instruction, DPI. That is in conversation with the North Carolina Association of Educators that it's in conversation with individual boards.

I can tell you that I haven't had elected officials reach out to me and say, hey, this policy. Until recently, I haven't had elected officials come to me and say, Hey, we're considering this policy. How would this impact boards? Whether that conversation is happening with other boards, maybe with, in larger districts, I don't know whether it's happening in a real kind of productive dialogue between say, D P I and the legislators writing the bills.

I don't know, but that would be what I would hope is happening. 

Amy Churchill: And I'd like to just say I believe that many of these legislators have not been in classrooms in decades and things have changed drastically. There's a lot more student collaboration. There are not rows of desks, all pointing to the teacher necessarily.

Matt Peiken: From what you're seeing? Is some of the legislation coming from Raleigh based on old world thinking of how teachers and students interact or should interact from your vantage point? 

Amy Churchill: I think that does tend to cloud their judgment.

I'm not saying that's their driving force, but I do believe that. Assumptions are never good. And I know that I try to reach out to our legislators and as does our superintendent and board chair and many others to please, come and visit our schools and see what is going on now.

Many have, some have not. But, yeah I'm not an educator. I'm in healthcare. I have learned an awful lot in the 10 years that I've been here, and I've had a lot of assumptions blown right out of my mind. Tell me about 

Matt Peiken: what, give me some examples of that, because you're a, obviously you're a parent, probably, and you have kids in school, or else why would you run for school board?

But you aren't coming from an education background professionally. What has blown your mind, what has changed your perceptions that you went into the school board with? What has happened over time to change them? 

Amy Churchill: So I have one daughter, she graduated in 2019, and oh by the way, had a fantastic education with Buncombe County Schools, went on to NC State University, graduated in May, and is currently employed.

Kudos to Buncombe County schools and mama. But however the issue is that when I first came on this, I only had that experience of my child. My child's friends were all the same, basically social economics neighborhoods. And I just thought that every kid had the opportunity. To study and learn and be read to like my child did and her friends.

I never really gave much thought to the very basics of some kids having to do their homework by a flashlight because they don't have electricity or they have a really hard time learning if they are hungry. There's just so many other issues that play into how well a student can learn.

Matt Peiken: You're talking specifically about economic issues at home in some ways, and I'm wondering do you think Raleigh in general, when it comes up with policies that affect schools are not taking into account some of the life conditions, life situations that many of our families find themselves in that make it even difficult just for kids to come to school, let alone to thrive.

Is Raleigh impeding? Some of that agility that school districts might need to be more responsive on the ground to families that, that need it. I will 

Amy Churchill: say that by not fully funding the Leandro case by not fully funding public education, that they are doing a great disservice to those students in particular.

And Leandro is a case where school boards sued the North Carolina General Assembly based off of that constitutional right of every student is entitled to a free and public education. I think it went. It was like in 1996 when it was started, and so there's been plenty. There's been plenty of blame to go around on both parties but it just recently within the last year, again, the ruling came down.

North Carolina General Assembly, you owe, and it was in the billions. I'm not exactly sure, I can't right off the top of my head tell you the exact amount, but I can tell you that. They've paid just a small percentage of that and have not fully funded even though it's been court mandated. 

Matt Peiken: We've talked about how this state from top down kind of, mandate certain policies and procedures.

And from what I understand, you also get a lot of feedback from the public. As a school board at meetings, maybe otherwise on social media elsewhere, and correct me if I'm wrong here, the public doesn't necessarily blame the state for what you can or can't do or what's happening in the classrooms or isn't happening, but the school board is probably a very easy and obvious target.

I'm curious what has changed. It seems from what I understand from a distance. That the tenor at school board meetings, public commenting, feedback and demands from the public have heightened and they've changed. Can any of you speak to that? 

Amy Churchill: I will say social media and keyboard warriors. When you don't have to identify yourself, you become much more emboldened to do.

Things that maybe you wouldn't do in person or say in person if you were to stop somebody that was a school board member in the grocery store. I think there's just that level of decency that we just all expect when we have face to face conversations that gets lost behind a keyboard. 

Matt Peiken: Can I ask, as school board members, are you finding yourselves personally attacked on social media? 

Amy Churchill: I can absolutely speak to that because I have been attacked on social media to the point where there was social media pages made about. Me resigning by some parents that weren't happy with not having all the facts.



Matt Peiken: have you, the rest of you faced similar sorts of feedback, comments, threats? 

Amy Ray: I've received threats by email and by text message. But I will say that on the whole, the vast majority of people who comment are doing so with good intention and with a good faith interest in the bettering our schools.

And we welcome all public comment. So in terms of the tenor of the meetings, what I'll say is even during the time that I've been on the board, it has become the case that we'll have a small group of the same folks showing up every time and offering comments that don't always feel to me to be particularly productive.

And in fact, they seem to be mostly inflammatory and wanting us to respond in a way that perhaps interferes with what they would articulate as their First Amendment rights. And so there seems a small group, very small group, are using the meetings as an opportunity to grandstand essentially 

but I do want to say that they don't interfere with our business at all. They don't bother me particularly in terms of the job that we have to do. And I will give them this. I believe that they honestly have. a point of view that they believe is in the best interest of kids and ultimately it's our decision as board members to make policy that is in the best interest of our students and our staff members and there's not any comment that could be made that would interfere with our ability and our commitment to that 

Matt Peiken: work.

 And this gets back to what I was initially curious about, people comment to you or complain to you about Certain policies, what you're doing and not doing. Do you respond? It's out of our hands in some sense. Like you're, there are things that you're asking of us to do or not do, that we can't legally do or not do.

Does that come up a lot? Sure, 

Amy Ray: it depends. Yeah, go ahead Ann. 

Ann Franklin: I think it's an elected official. It's our responsibility to listen to the public. And if we are the platform that they choose to express their appreciation or their frustration, we are that platform. We choose in Buncombe County not to respond to the people that do public comment.

Now, we take notes, and we're very mindful of what they say, but it's there in our... County in in our meeting. It's their three minutes to tell us what they feel like now. After the meeting's over, if those people want to hang around and talk to us, we make ourselves available to them. We are public people.

We have emails and, Text messages and even at the peanut butter aisle, if they want to talk to us and tell us how they feel. We are welcome to listen. 

Amy Ray: I would say that part of our job, though, is to educate the public on what we can, and cannot do. That is to say what we have authority over and what we don't.

And for example, when we look at funding, and we see our three sources of funding, which are centrally federal, state, and local, and we recognize that our state funding doesn't fund our schools. It's not adequate. So we then have to ask our county commissioners to Fund us a significant amount and every year our request goes up.

And so when we get for example Teachers really asking us we want raises. We need a living wage all Very important requests that we want to meet we then have to explain to our educators and our families Here's what we have control over and here's what we don't and here's how you can advocate for more So I do believe that part of our job as board members is to educate folks and to say, you know That we don't hold the purse strings at all We could we can we are able to control how we use the money we get but we are not a funding source ourselves 

George Sieburg: Yeah, I appreciate that.

And what you said as well and just to go back to what we had talked about earlier The fact that it's a collaborative process, right? It's not just collaborative among the other board members, but it's collaborative within the district. If something is brought to us in public comment, it's then a conversation we're going to have with our folks at central office or, whoever might be involved in that.

Yes, we as board members, are the public facing side of the district. But we're not operating in a vacuum either. We are in constant conversation with folks who who serve within the district so that we can address whatever might come. And then, as Amy has said, then educate back to the public and say, this is what we can do.

This is what we 

Amy Ray: can't do. And we're advocates. We're advocates for the public school system at the local level County and at state 

Matt Peiken: level. Are you hearing things you initially Amy, we're talking about comments online and the anonymity that can happen there. At school board meetings, it's not anonymous.

People show up and are vocal. From what I am hearing there's maybe a certain tenor and theme to some of the comments coming across recently, at least at Asheville City Schools. I understand that a microphone has had to be turned off or somebody has been, please tell me give me some more details about this that there have been people talking who just have a speech they want to give and eventually won't stop talking and, Have to be removed or have their microphone removed.

What has happened? And is that just an outlier? I would say it as 

George Sieburg: an outlier. I mean for the most part public comment at our district and I believe the same is true for Bruncombe County is from folks who Are a deep part of that community whether it's a parent sometimes students educators grandparents, that kind of thing.

We do know, and this is true across the country, that we have folks who are going to board member or to board meetings. From beyond the district that they reside in to bring up especially challenges to books or challenges to curriculum When did you 

Matt Peiken: start seeing that? 

George Sieburg: That's a good question.

I've only been on the board for two and a half years Within the last year or so so 

Matt Peiken: even just within that two and a half years you've seen it evolve Just in the past year. Yeah, I'd say so. Does that mirror also what your experiences are at the county level? And I 

Amy Churchill: think too it, We started to notice a lot more public comment and public viewing when the pandemic.

Because suddenly that was, school boards were important to everybody. And a very vocal minority took that opportunity to talk about the mask or in person learning versus not learning, not being in person. And took that maybe a step further to then become Social warriors maybe for other Views and beliefs that they had That they then brought to the school systems 

Matt Peiken:

Ann Franklin: just wanted to say that one of the things that has happened to us is that we have decided to broadcast our meeting which gives a broader number of people the opportunity to listen and the city's been doing that longer than we have. And by virtue of that we hope that people are paying attention and they understand what we're doing, but it's on that level.

Whereas, Goodness, when I first came on the board, we didn't do that. 

Matt Peiken: I'm curious about that. George, you talked about people who don't live in the school district who are appearing and speaking. And you've said you've noticed that also at the county level. What are these factions attached to? Are there specific movements from outside that are happening nationally that you can point to, or is it more vague and cloudy than that?

And how, and so how do you know they are from outside? you think? You mentioned reading materials. We, yeah, 

George Sieburg: We don't ask folks giving public comment to identify with a group unless they say they're speaking on behalf of a group. And that's People giving public comment, they self regulate that.

So most individuals are just coming up as individuals. Now, whether they're being fed something from a, from organizations that are broader. Or the internet. I, I don't know. I'll be honest, I don't. I guess I 

Matt Peiken: was just wondering how you know. 

Ann Franklin: We require people to sign in and tell us their address, which after it's over, we can look and see if they have people students that are in our jurisdiction or 

Amy Ray: if they live in Raleigh.

So if 

Matt Peiken: this is happening, if there are people from outside the district who are starting to be a greater presence at school boards, still might be a minority of people, but if they are, if they're starting to be a greater presence, how is that affecting? Or is it affecting the work you do and if it isn't affecting it, Amy, you talked about people can speak to whatever they want to speak.

It doesn't affect how we do our job. Then why are they 

Amy Ray: there? I think they want to affect what we do. And I think, frankly, they want to scare us sometimes, but I will say this. The way that they, they don't affect the way that this board, and I'm sure Buncombe County Board, does its work.

What I think it can affect, and this goes beyond school boards, right? It goes to local officials that are serving all around this country. That as local officials become more and more the target of groups who want to disrupt. And who want to make public service more difficult, then people will hesitate to serve.

I've been asked many times. Why would you do this? I've been asked that in different states when people find out. So it's not a problem unique to Buncombe County or a challenge. I wouldn't say it's a problem. I would say it's a challenge. It's a challenge for local election officials. It's a challenge for local school boards.

It's a challenge for all local leaders right now. Do you think 

Matt Peiken: that this is part of a broader movement to either just sew distrust in public schools in general, to create a certain undercurrent of chaos that would turn parents off to public schools and further support the privatization of education.

Ann Franklin: personally think that there is a strong feeling in North Carolina and probably even nationally. To dismantle public school to take take it away from the people and in North Carolina, the Constitution guarantees of free public education. By chipping away from what we have I believe they want to do away with 

Amy Churchill: public school.

Matt Peiken: I'll tell you the whole thing about it. What I were called, quote, opportunity scholarships. I find this so maddening, and I don't know why people don't call it out for what I see it as, and please, if any of you have a different reading on this, or if I am not seeing it correctly, I want your vantage point on this.

But, from how I, on the outside, see it, it's, we're going to give families X dollars that they can put toward private education. But that money is never enough to send the child to private education. So let's say these opportunity scholarships, from what I understand, so this school year, a family of four earning up to 110, 000 a year is eligible for a scholarship of up to 6, 492.

The average tuition for private schools in North Carolina is 10, 123. So even that family of means that is earning up to 110, 000, They get 6, 400 and change their student per student. There's still 4, 000 to cover for families. They're making much less that they can't do that. And so tell me if I'm wrong in this that It's a further segregation.

It's an economic segregation. It's allowing certain people to be able to send their kids to private school, but never enough to allow all kids into private school solely based on economic means. Am I wrong on that? No, I think you're 

Amy Ray: right on the money. I think you're right and I also think that speaks to the defunding of public education.

So if we're going to talk about where our public funds are spent, if they are spent supporting our students, our families, It's just to pay for 60 percent of a private school tuition. Think about what that money could do for public schools, which is the most important part of our democracy. It is central to a functioning democracy to have good public schools.

And so they're just diverting the money away from public schools. 

Matt Peiken: Anybody else who want to talk specifically to that? 

George Sieburg: I'll just say that the data that I know is that 8 in 10 children in North Carolina go to attend a public school. Four out of 

Matt Peiken: five. Four out of five. 

George Sieburg: Sure 

Matt Peiken: You're right. Sixteen out of twenty.

I know my fractions. Thank you 

Amy Ray: for reducing 

Amy Churchill: for me. 

George Sieburg: But, if we're looking at, 80 percent of the, Population of Children in this state going to public schools, and we are and the and lawmakers in the state are pulling funds away from that 80 of students. It's obvious to me What the intent is?

But we also look beyond just those opportunity scholarships. We look at continued underfunding of schools It's not just opportunity scholarships, they've taken away what was called one's called master pay for educators that you know have More 

Matt Peiken: credentials. Advanced degrees.

So it, which I, on the face of it, that's absurd to me as well, that wouldn't you want to incentivize more learning, better knowing your craft, your career, right? This seems to be completely antithetical to that. Why get a master's? Why get a PhD if you're not going to earn any more money for it from teaching in public schools?

Again, am I wrong on that? No. Yeah. 

Amy Ray: Okay, you're not. And I want to mention to that, you know, as we came out of the pandemic and we talk about the schools and the challenges that we face, what became very clear was that we have more and more students who've experienced trauma and that what our needs are have shifted.

And so the school districts have been put into positions where we are funding more and more Mental health counselors and student behavior specialists, things like that, so that we can So that we can assist our students who need to be able to learn, who need that support. We were able to do that through some COVID funding that's going away.

And so far I haven't seen the state offer to fund those kinds of positions. And those are the kinds of positions that counties and local governments are now Either forced to fund or not. And if they're not there, our students aren't able to learn because of the different challenges that we all face As we came out of the pandemic and as we face more and more social challenges 

Matt Peiken: Yeah, and there's a natural bridge from that into senate bill 49 That was originally the hub of what I want to talk with all of you about and some of the language in this legislation to me is I don't know if it's intentionally vague, it certainly isn't precise, and I wonder, and I want to get responses on how the school districts, both Asheville City and Buncombe County, are responding or at least talking initially about how to respond to some of this language.

So some of this is apparent in the legislation, a parent has, quote, the right to direct the education and care of his or her child. Okay. What does it mean for a parent to direct the education of their child when it in the direction of when the school boards? 

Ann Franklin: First off, let me state that Asheville City and Buncombe County schools have been about doing many of the things that are in this bill over time.

This is not new news. 

Matt Peiken: Can you specify what things you're already doing that are in this bill? 

Ann Franklin: You just put me on spot. 

We have provided, I need some 

Amy Ray: help. One example that I would, I think of that comes right away is, if a parent comes and wants to know what their student is learning, we're happy to, we've always been happy to share.

The curriculum and the materials that are being checked out or whatever. That's not new to Asheville City Schools So the way that it is posed as a parent's bill of rights For example, many of the rights that this bill would give parents they've already had 

Matt Peiken: But it uses language that I would think is both handcuffing and Mysterious, because it's to me, there is no specificity in here, maybe for the good because you can interpret it however you might want to interpret it at you as a school district as a school board and 

Amy Ray: Senate Bill 49 

Ann Franklin: Is evolving.

The ink's not dry on it, and as they tweak it and we figure this out over time the things that you're seeing will probably change as those tweaks come into 

Amy Ray: effect. 

Matt Peiken: You think they'll change? 

George Sieburg: I can give an example of one that did change.

Originally a lot of that, the language was supposed to be implemented by September 15th. And they've now revised that into January. And so I think that one speaks to the advocacy across the state of, Organizations like the North Carolina Association of Educators, school boards get binding together The North Carolina School Board Association really advocating for some changes.

So I'm not necessarily confident that 49 is going to go away. I do see that lawmakers are listening, or at least, the, they're getting their ear bent in the right way. 

Matt Peiken: Yeah. But that, all that speaks to me when you're saying an extension that just says okay, we haven't figured out how to cross all the T's and dot the eyes of what we want to accomplish here.

 So I don't know that the intent of the legislation. Is again from an outsider, but why would the intent of the legislation change rather than, oh, we need to legally button this up and legally tie this little knot. I want to point to some other things this talks about this language.

Again, in the vagaries of it, schools must quote, implement a well planned inclusive and comprehensive program to assist parents and families in effectively participating in their child's education. Okay, what does that even look like, a plan to help them participate? Look, PTAs have existed forever.

Parents are invited to school board meetings. They can talk directly with teachers, principals, and superintendents. That has never changed. What needs to be in a a well planned, inclusive and comprehensive program to assist parents. Okay, so take that verb, okay, to assist parents and families.

Is it just merely writing out exactly all the avenues that they have to be able to have feedback? What am I missing here? 

Amy Ray: I, Matt, I think this isn't the first piece of legislation that was drafted poorly in a way or vaguely so that they could say they were accomplishing something that they may or may not be accomplishing.

In other words, I don't think that particular language or the language that you quoted earlier says much of anything that hasn't, that isn't already occurring. And but I also wanna say that I think at least, and I don't speak on behalf of the whole board, I'm speaking as Amy Ray. citizen here.

I, this legislation was clearly not intended to it clearly had an intention to control schools and to control the content in some cases that we could teach our students at certain ages, et cetera. And the, at the end of the day though, there's gonna be years of litigation to figure out exactly what some of these terms mean.

For example, when you talk about who can who can teach certain things or who is an educator, what does that mean? If a teacher is not allowed to talk about certain subject matters in the classroom, but a student talks about it, is that okay? Can a teacher respond? And we've, we have to consult with our lawyers now to understand exactly what this legislation is requiring because it is not clear.

But I think the most important points to make from the school board's perspective from mine is, one, Much of the public information, the parent information, parts of the bill, we already do, we always have. That's not to say it's not a pernicious bill in some ways, but it is to say that we're already doing most of it.

And then the second thing I would say is that to the extent we will adhere to the letter of that law as we understand it, and we will always. Advocate for each of our students to feel like they have a sense of belonging in our schools, no matter who they are or what their families look like, and we will also want to make sure that they are cared for as individuals and their needs are met.

Matt Peiken: , you mentioned the word content in terms of what's taught in schools, and that seems to be happening all over the country. Conversations and news articles about teachers either. They're losing their jobs over subjects that were brought up in a classroom that at least historically had not been brought up before.

Content of books in libraries. How are you as school districts responding to the for lack of a better word, encroachment of politics on the content of what you're teaching in schools? What's, what, how are you having conversations on the board around that? 

Amy Ray: Our measure is what's best for the students.

Always. So politics doesn't... But that's interpretive, right? That's subjective. So in other words, but to answer your question, our mission.

And we don't allow politics to change or alter what we teach our children or what they have access to. We have to adhere to the legislation. So we will do that. And I would also note that it's not happening all over the country. It's happening in specific states. But it's 

Matt Peiken: growing. We're seeing it in Texas and Florida.

We're seeing this, and it's only happening more and more. More legislatures are coming. Considering there are bills being brought up. And now some of these bills are ridiculous on the face of it, but it's happening more and more in North Carolina, the legislature, look, we have a super majority carrying one party and there are certain factions that.

Donate money to that party that want to see certain things happen. We alluded earlier to outside elements coming in to have some influence on what happens at the county and city school board level. I don't think it's a big leap to say that you're going to have to face that at some point. And if you're not already facing it to some degree, where if you bring up subjects that makes a student feel uncomfortable, based on race or gender.

Who knows, I don't know how that stands up to First Amendment scrutiny at the Supreme Court level. I don't know that. But I'm just wondering, you're hearing vapors of this at your meetings, right? Some of the things that come, the comments that come up, am I incorrect on that? No, you're correct.

Okay. I just didn't want to 

Amy Ray: see, but I don't think, so much of it is driven by fear and we're not a fear based organization. I think that we will protect and advocate for our teachers to be able to respond to questions about race or sexuality or gender at a age appropriate levels and in adhering to the legislation.

But I think much of the conversations have been parents who have felt like they didn't maybe have access that they probably did have access to all along, maybe they didn't know it. And then fear around content. And I think our response is at the end of the day, it will always be the best interest of the kids and the educators, and we won't yield to fear.

Ann Franklin: And that we'll follow the law. And however hamstrung that might put us, we're gonna follow the law. And what Amy was saying is very true. Access to this information that's talked about in Senate Bill 49, in my opinion, for the majority of people, has been available to them.

They may not have known how to get it. They may not have felt that the road was clear for them to do that. And that this bill speaks to that and says that we'll open our doors when our doors have 

Amy Ray: been open. 

Matt Peiken: There are a couple things I want to get to around that have been talked about specifically with Buncombe County and Asheville City Schools.

One is How a mandated redrawing of electoral lines beginning with the next election cycle could change the makeup of the Buncombe County Schools Board Along with a trend statewide to make school board elections partisan. How is this redrawing or proposed redrawing? 

It's been passed 

Ann Franklin: right but the the law as it exists is impossible to follow because there is a line in there that says that these district lines have to have contiguous borders, whatever it is. And we in Buncombe County and Asheville City don't have contiguous lines. So what we have learned from the research that we've been doing is the bill that it, as it is written, is impossible.

It's impossible. 

Matt Peiken: So that just goes to what we were talking about earlier with SB 49, some of the vagaries here. And also from what I understand that It would redraw it in a way that supposedly creates equal populations or roughly equal population size. One person, one vote. One per isn't it always that way?

Am I wrong on that? How is that different from what's... Being proposed. 

Amy Churchill: I think that's what's hamstringing us is that the way that law is written is it makes it very difficult to accurately determine if it is one person one vote We have some wiggle room within a five percent margin plus or minus for equality, but the At the end of the day, it seems like it's very difficult, if not impossible to ascertain just what that really looks like.

Matt Peiken: I guess I'm confused by that. We all are with 

Amy Churchill: this bill. 

Matt Peiken: For all I, from all I understand is it's trying to create districts that people have to vote within. So it's no longer just at large voting. So let's say 70 percent of the people who are in the voting district happen to live within a tight metropolitan area and 30 percent are more rural.

Okay. And the, from what I understand, the reason to make these district based is because they believe that if 70 percent are voting a certain way and 30 percent are voting another way, those 30%. Are not being represented very well. So we want to put the people in this rural district who might want to vote differently, have them have their own district.

But there isn't enough population to make it equal. So it's watering down, in a sense, the 70 percent population. Am I being clear or am I being also very vague about it? Do you know what I mean? It's watering down the majority. That's what it seems like to me. If it's one person, one vote, okay, one person, the popular vote wins.

Ann Franklin: Let's talk about the way it is in Buncombe County today, because Asheville City has just started having elected board members, so they're a little different. So in Buncombe County, you run from the district where you reside, and the entire county votes for you. Okay, so the new law, as it's written, would be that only people that live in, because I'm a North Buncombe representative, I'll use that as an example only the people that live in the North Buncombe district could vote for me or another candidate.

It's trying to narrow what's 

Amy Ray: going 

Matt Peiken: on. That's what I was getting at a little more. So it's passed. This has to happen next election. What is this going to do? Do you believe what is this going to do to the makeup of the board?


Amy Ray: we believe 

Ann Franklin: at this moment is that it's impossible to do what the law says we have to do. And I don't mean to keep Splitting hairs here, but that's exactly what it says and because it can't be done. We Are looking for them to tweak it in some way. So to make it feasible 

Amy Ray: for us to 

Ann Franklin: do It also impacts Asheville City if you guys want to speak to that how so because they 

Amy Ray: Are unusual.

George Sieburg: In a good way. So, In the original writing of the legislation, districts had to be contiguous. And again, they had to be of roughly equal size. The way that Asheville City's district the district lines as they're drawn, first of all, do not follow the lines of Asheville City proper. So the district is a different size than the city.

And there are pockets. North Asheville is in particular, but also in South Asheville, also in West Asheville, I believe where there are pockets of actual city district surrounded by Buncombe County. In fact, I used to live in a on a street in North Asheville, where every single house was different.

In fact when a lot of North Asheville was developed, property owners got to choose. They had to, choose who they wanted to be a part of. So you cannot draw contiguous district lines. If that, if the original writing of that law is followed, it's possible that we would have to redraw Asheville City district lines.

The challenge there is Asheville City Schools is a special taxing district. So people within Asheville city district pay a supplemental tax. If you were to redraw the lines, you're either pulling people into that taxing district, which I believe would be unconstitutional or you're pulling people out.

And that's when Ann talks about how it's impossible to draw based on those lines that's the impossibility. 

Matt Peiken: Can I get to then? There's a parallel effort to merge the school districts. From what I understand, there are certain efficiencies that can be had, economic efficiencies.

From your vantage as board members of both county and city schools, what do you think the impacts of merging the school districts would have? 

George Sieburg: If I can, Matt, before we even talk about that impact, just so we're clear on what's being asked of the district. So it's now written into state law that Asheville City Schools and Buncombe County Schools have to jointly do a feasibility study about a merger and present it to the General Assembly by February 15th.

I believe the date is of 2025. So we essentially have 14 months to do this feasibility study and that is law and we are going to comply with it. And when I say comply with it, meaning that we will do the feasibility study. What we are going to make sure that we do is maximize this time that we have before it has to be on the desk of the General Assembly that we are involving all stakeholders in this conversation.

Yeah, for sure, you have two districts operating in a single county. If you were to merge the districts, I think there's no doubt there would be some economic efficiencies. We, though, also want to make sure that we're having conversations around the impact to families, the impact to students, the impact to educators.

That it's not just a financial impact that we're looking at. And in order to... To find those, we want to make sure we're having conversations out in the community. We're bringing as many voices as we can into this 

Matt Peiken: study. Are you hearing from families that they want a merger? Just curious, just as board members, you hear about everything else.

People come to board meetings, comment about all manner of topics. This must be something you're hearing from families. Are you hearing anything about that? Where do you, are you hearing? It 

Amy Churchill: pops up every once in a while. Yeah, it's and it's just basically a why are there two school districts, a city and a county 

Matt Peiken: when it pops up is does it pop up as a curiosity?

Amy Churchill: Yes, Yes, not and not really a thought. I think one way or the other. It's just maybe I just tend to know more people who just move here from somewhere else and they're not used to a county and city Differentiation from 

Matt Peiken: what I understand that this has been the way it's at least not that this should ever be a reason to continue something, but this is the way it's been done for many decades, right?

Correct. Okay. Yeah. From in that time from just from your time on the boards and being more involved in public education, Have there been times where you go, gosh, we can't do certain things or we'd love to do something with city schools that we're not doing, or there's something happening at the county level that we're not doing.

It seems like both of you from in this last hour, Mirror a lot of what each other is doing. You just are, you have, at city schools, you have different, some set of schools under your charge. And county level, you have a greater set of schools under your charge. But it doesn't sound like you're doing business any differently.

Amy Ray: Yeah I think that's right. I would say that more and more we're seeing collaboration. And so I think that there may be historically was a greater difference, not in what we were doing, but just in how much we were talking and collaborating. And I think with Dr. Jackson and Dr. Fuhrman, what you're seeing is a very clear.

Effort or interest in making sure that we are collaborating and just seeing, talking to each other, learning from each other. I have probably heard, I think maybe in Asheville City Schools we hear a little bit more from parents perhaps than from Buncombe County Schools because the effect of a consolidation would really be to eliminate schools.

It wouldn't be a merger, but I would say we're the smaller district. So the way most people would probably look at it is we're getting swallowed by the bigger district, right? And so what I hear a lot are from families. Some of whom have generations that have graduated from Asheville City Schools, and they don't want to merge.

They feel like Asheville City Schools serves a particular population in an urban environment. But and then occasionally there are those who say, maybe we should or maybe we shouldn't. But for the most part more of what I hear is It's a concern about that and about whether or not the students that we serve would be served as well.

And that's not an indictment at all on Buncombe County schools. It's just more of a concern. Would you? And that's what the study is for. 

Matt Peiken: Yeah. And I, I don't know that you would know the answers to this, but just from your feeling of it, are there things that happened through the separation? to the benefit of the schools in each district that might be more challenging with a merger.

Amy Ray: I think from my perspective as a parent in Asheville City Schools and as a board member, what I love about Asheville City Schools is its size. It's small. We're nimble. We're facile. And we have an urban school district, far more than Buncombe County, right? Most of our students are more urban. I can be a little bit and maybe they're just as facile and nimble.

So I don't want to suggest that they are not there is at least from my perspective, a smaller group. Because there's 10 schools as a board member, I can go to all of those schools in a week. I can visit them. I can know them. I can know their principals. I do know their principals, right? And so I really appreciate the advantage in terms of my understanding of the challenges at each school and also the folks in our central office. I know those very, you know, so it's hard for me to imagine how consolidation wouldn't affect that in negatively. But I completely understand the reasons to study it and am open to that process.

We're going to cooperate and collaborate fully with it. Is 

Matt Peiken: there anything, any topic that we haven't talked about or anything we did talk about that we brushed over too quickly that you want to add something about? Anybody who has anything? 

Amy Churchill: I will just say I, I think this is a great opportunity for both Asheville City Schools and Buncombe County Schools in that this, the stars aligned and for probably the very first time we have.

Two new superintendents who came from different areas. And so I would like to think that just the personalities of those two superintendents and along with the collaboration of the boards, you're going to see great things come out of Buncombe County schools in Asheville City schools, regardless of what that study says.

Amy Ray: I would add that. Our job as public educators is to provide a phenomenal public education. And we do that in this county, both at the county schools and city schools. Our students are served well, not all of them equally well, by the way. And that is our great challenge and one that we embrace, and we are moving forward.

But in response to sort of the private school the opportunity scholarships, which is... It's interestingly named and even the challenge of charter schools, what we're determined to do is not withstanding all of those challenges. Show folks why they want to be in public school because we are outstanding and I can say that as someone who has had two children graduate and Two who are along the way with all of the things at any given moment that might seem challenging what they walk away with is A terrific education and they are well prepared for college or for any, you know For the career that they want and we're gonna keep moving in that direction and become better and better at it.

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