The Overlook with Matt Peiken

PART 2: School Boards Under Scrutiny | Leaders of Asheville City and Buncombe County Schools

October 04, 2023 Matt Peiken Episode 93
The Overlook with Matt Peiken
PART 2: School Boards Under Scrutiny | Leaders of Asheville City and Buncombe County Schools
Show Notes Transcript

Social politics are making inroads into public schools. State legislatures, particularly those controlled by Republicans, are mandating that elections for school boards become partisan, and they’re drafting legislation to censor books available in school libraries, the curricula taught in classrooms and even classroom conversations.

This is the second 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 dig into State Senate Bill 49—a so-called parents’ bill of rights when it comes to public education—along with efforts to erode public education while steering money to private schools. We also talk through the state-mandated redrawing of district lines for electoral purposes and a movement to merge the Asheville City and Buncombe County Schools Districts.

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Matt Peiken: What are called "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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