In 1963, the Buncombe County Citizens Committee for Better Schools issued a study that was detailed and clear in its recommendations about the future of local education:
“Consolidation of Asheville City Schools and Buncombe County Schools is recommended, with the additional recommendation that further study and consideration be given by the local school authorities.”
Sixty years and at least nine studies later, ACS and BCS remain unmerged. But there are signs that could change.
Last week, the General Assembly took the first steps to mandate the Buncombe County Board of Education and Asheville City Board of Education study a potential merger and report findings and recommendations by Feb. 15, 2025. The move was a late addition to House Bill 5, which initially focused only on annexation in several counties. The bill still has votes in the Senate to pass and will then head to the House.
Members of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, which controls the local budgets of both school systems and could mandate a merger under North Carolina law, have expressed interest in consolidation. Last winter, the board seriously considered examining a BCS-ACS merger before backing off.
Buncombe’s elected officials in the General Assembly had discussed a consolidation study in late August when they were talking about a move to alter Buncombe County Board of Education district lines, said Sen. Julie Mayfield, D-Buncombe. Mayfield said she was not surprised when consolidation language appeared in the bill, but said she and other Democrats didn’t know it would end up in HB 5.
“I am supportive of it,” Mayfield said of the proposed study mandate. “And the rest of the Buncombe delegation is.”
Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Morganton, would have had to sign off on HB 5’s consolidation addendum, Mayfield said. Daniel did not respond to requests for comment.
Mayfield said she told Daniel if legislators were to mandate a study, the legislature needs to pay for it. Mayfield said Warren told her he would be “happy to ask for funding.”
Mayfield said she was not aware until recently that Buncombe County Commissioners considered doing a study. Rep. Eric Ager, D-Buncombe, said he learned about commissioners’ interest in a study as discussion around districts progressed throughout the year. Rep. Lindsay Prather, D-Buncombe, said she also was not aware until recently of the commission’s intent to study consolidation. Rep. Caleb Rudow, D-Buncombe, deferred questions about the consolidation language to Mayfield.
Some commissioners said they were surprised by the merger mandate language, which was worked into the bill a day before it passed, according to the legislative calendar. But when they spoke to Asheville Watchdog before that, they expressed enthusiasm for a merger study.
“My basic perspective is that I think there are some strong arguments for having a single unified school district in Buncombe County rather than two separate systems,” Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman told The Watchdog recently via email. “First, the city school district has been poorly managed for at least a decade now characterized by chaotic management from the Central Office, high turnover in the Superintendent position and many senior staff not living in or being connected to the community.
“Second, creating a unified district would also allow more of our taxpayer funds to be invested into the classrooms, providing pay raises for teachers and other public staff, by reducing the significant, duplicated administrative costs of running two separate school systems in the same community. With that said, I’ll do all I can to support both our school districts as this is the system we have in place today.”
- County and city boards of education can request a merger and can call for a referendum on such a plan.
- A board of county commissioners can mandate a merger.
- Legislative action can force a merger.
There are 14 counties, including Buncombe, that have multiple, unconsolidated school districts.
Commissioner Al Whitesides, who has sat on several boards that have made significant decisions about the county’s educational future, believes strongly that the two systems should merge.
“We’re not going to be able to fight for two school systems as well as we can for one,” he said. “It’s just common sense. There are a lot of forces, I’m afraid whether we like it or not, that are going to force us to consolidate,” noting growing political and fiscal support in the state legislature for private, charter school education.
While Whitesides wants to see a merger study, he said commissioners were caught off guard by HB 5. “We just found it out a few days ago,” he said, adding the board is wondering where the money to pay for the study will come from.
“I just wish they would be more informative,” he said of the General Assembly, adding commissioners were planning to talk about their own study as soon as October.
Commissioner Terri Wells favors examining a merger.
After the addendum to HB 5, Wells said it would be beneficial for the Buncombe County and Asheville City School Boards to work together on a study “in order to ensure that we have accurate information about the educational and economic impacts of a potential merger.”
Commissioner Amanda Edwards, who has a child in ACS and whose husband is the principal of Asheville High School, said her family is “steeped” in the district and committed to its students’ success.
Edwards said she wants to ensure that if commissioners were to pursue consolidation that it would be studied not only for potential cost savings but for educational outcomes.
“I am remaining 100% open minded to go through the study,” Edwards said. “Let’s begin. I think, with that open mind, we owe it to our city and county to do the study.”
Edwards said she was surprised to see HB 5’s consolidation language, saying, “If the General Assembly is mandating it, they should commit to funding it.”
Whitesides and others know a merger would receive pushback, but, he contended, it would improve local education.
“Consolidation is not going to make everybody happy,” Whitesides said. “But at the end of the day, it’s going to be the best thing for our students.”
Opposition from school leaders
While members of the Buncombe County Commission are enthusiastic about the potential for consolidation, the feeling isn’t shared by school leaders.
“Asheville City Schools has no interest in merging school districts, and there are currently no discussions around the matter,” ACS spokesman Dillon Huffman said in August.
“Buncombe County Schools has not engaged in conversations regarding a merger with Asheville City Schools,” BCS spokeswoman Stacia Harris said last month. After the consolidation study was added to HB 5, Harris said, “”Buncombe County Schools will engage in the study as required by law and will consider study determinations when available.”
County Manager Avril Pinder explained why commissioners had decided to scrap the idea of exploring a merger, at least for now.
Pinder and Wells met with ACS Chair George Sieburg, vice chair Amy Ray and then-Superintendent James Causby in late February, Pinder said.
“ACS asked that we wait until the elected board has been in place and a new superintendent before we look at consolidation,” Pinder said. Rob Jackson succeeded Causby in September 2022 and Maggie Fehrman — the seventh ACS superintendent in 10 years — started work in mid-July.
“Asheville City Schools has operated independently for generations, and we believe the district should continue to do so,” Sieburg told The Watchdog in an email, before he knew about the HB 5 addendum.
“We understand that on the surface, consolidation could create financial efficiencies,” Sieburg said. “But we know from previous consolidations in the state that economics cannot be the only consideration as some students and families benefit from such a move while other families and students are harmed. Therefore, any conversation and/or study around the pros and cons of consolidation must include an array of voices, particularly those of Black families harmed by desegregation in the 1970s.”
He said school staff should be included in any conversation about consolidation.
Sieburg also acknowledged concerns raised about senior staff not living in or being connected to the community but called these “a falsehood” and said all staff now employed by ACS live in Asheville or Buncombe County or just outside.
“We will continue to advocate for the independence of our small and impassioned district, and we are excited about what the future holds for ACS students, staff, and families,’ Sieburg said. After the HB 5 addendum, he said, “I don’t think there is anything to add, except to reiterate that any study must include a comprehensive look at impacts and not just fiscal impact.”
Asheville and Buncombe school systems are roughly the same size as they were in the late 1990s.
At the end of the 2021-22 school year, there were 4,267 students and 689 employees in ACS, according to Huffman and the North Carolina Public Schools Statistical Profile. BCS had just more than 22,000 students and about 3,700 permanent staff and 1,000 as-needed, according to Harris.
As reported by county staff in February, the achievement gap at ACS is wide: In the 2021-22 school year, only 11% of Black students grades three through eight were proficient in math, compared to 66% of white students, and 13% of Black students in the same grade span were proficient in reading compared to 75% of white students.
ACS’s achievement gap between white and Black students was the worst of all the state’s 115 school districts for the 2021-22 school year, the most recent year for which data has been analyzed, according to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
Currently at ACS, 63% of ACS students are white and 18% are Black, according to data provided by Huffman. At BCS 65% of students are white and 7% are Black, according to data provided by Harris.
BCS budgeted $10.1 million of its total $405.5 million budget on licensed central office and school-based administrators, according to its budget resource document for the 2022-23 fiscal year.
In the 2022-23 fiscal year, ACS budgeted more than $2 million of its $86.5 million budget on its superintendent, principals, directors, assistant supervisors, a deputy superintendent, and administration positions, according to Huffman.
A collection of studies
From the early 1960s to the mid-1990s, several studies examined merging Asheville and Buncombe schools, according to The Watchdog research. They were:
- 1963 Buncombe County Citizens Committee for Better Schools Subcommittee on School Consolidation study fragment – recommended consolidation
- 1967 Blue Ribbon Committee report – recommended consolidation
- 1976 Local Study Committee report fragment – recommended consolidation
- 1977 Report to City Board of Education Advisory on Consolidation by F. Jack Cole – weighed previous studies and pros and cons of consolidation
- 1978 Asheville-Buncombe County Joint Consolidation Fact-Finding Study – weighed pros and cons of consolidation
- 1982 “Considering School Consolidation in Asheville and Buncombe County” report – recommended against consolidation
- 1986 Consolidation of Schools report to Leadership Asheville – reviewed previous studies and pros and cons of consolidation
- 1996 “The Urge to Merge: Issues and Implications” by the Asheville-Buncombe League of Women Voters – weighed pros and cons of consolidation
- Undated, unattributed review: “Consolidation: A Review of the Studies for the Asheville/Buncombe County School Systems” – reviewed past studies
- Undated, unattributed review: “Central Issues Related to Asheville City/Buncombe County School Merger” – reviewed pros and cons of consolidation
The most complete archive of Asheville-Buncombe consolidation studies appears to be the Asheville Buncombe League of Women Voters papers in a University of North Carolina Asheville archive.
The League’s study was the most recent comprehensive analysis. Two other large studies are most often cited in the League’s school consolidation archive at UNCA. The three vary greatly in their conclusions.
The 1967 study created by the Blue Ribbon Asheville-Buncombe County School Study Committee assumed consolidation was a foregone conclusion.
“The committee recommends the immediate merger of the Asheville and Buncombe County school units, with a financial base adequate to assure additional educational opportunities for all children,” its first recommendation said.
The 1978 study listed numerous reasons consolidation needed to be studied, ranging from a pattern of consolidations across the state to a shrinking ACS population and tax base.
The 1996 League of Women Voters study was an attempt to synthesize years of debate. The League believed the consolidation conversation needed a well-researched update, which was not commissioned by any government but rather motivated by a civic interest in the topic.
Current League president Suzanne Fisher said the organization was unable to identify anyone who worked on the study. Fisher also declined to comment.
If or how Buncombe’s commissioners reacted to each of these studies is unclear.
Whitesides was on the 12-person committee that created the 1978 report but said its year-long work “never saw the light of day.”
“Consolidation… should only be undertaken if it increases the educational opportunities of its children and should not be done as some gimmick to save dollars,” that report concluded.
Between the late 1980s and 2005, 43 districts across 18 counties consolidated into one per county.
Simultaneously, state-level entities began to produce their own consolidation studies. They were often inconclusive and sometimes disagreed with one another.
Cited in the League’s report, a 1986 statewide study by the Department of Public Instruction reached “an inescapable conclusion that there should be no more than one school system per county.”
That same year the North Carolina School Boards Association commissioned its own study, titled “Heavy Mettle,” to analyze the DPI report. It offered a damning critique.
“What this critique has revealed is a rather spectacular failure on the part of the report’s authors to mount a credible case for implementing such a sweeping and disruptive policy,” the report stated, asserting mergers generally do not lower costs, are too complex and rarely improve educational quality and efficiency.
Mergers, it concluded, often are a “diversion away from the greater task of finding new ways to positively influence the lives of children and to increase the effectiveness of those who work in their service.”
New research: Cost drops, integration rises
Just last month, the Economics of Education Review academic journal published “School district consolidation in North Carolina,” which employs data never before used to examine the effects of the 18 most recent school consolidations in North Carolina.
The results showed mergers led to decreased spending per student, more racial integration, and no negative impacts on educational achievement or students’ long-term involvement with the justice system.
“To me it was sort of a story of school districts doing basically the same with fewer resources, and also improving integration,” said the study’s author, Mark Chin, who has a doctorate from Harvard in education and is an assistant professor of education policy and inequality at Vanderbilt.
But there’s a tradeoff, Chin found. Less spending post-consolidation was sometimes tied to race and teacher salaries. In some consolidations, the number of non-white students goes up, the number of white students goes down, and more experienced teachers move to more affluent school districts, Chin said.
“I find suggestive evidence that the reason why some of the dollars are decreasing in consolidated contexts is … because … they’re spending less overall on instruction,” Chin said. This is specifically because of the way North Carolina funds teacher salaries on experience and education-based scales.
A BCS-ACS merger would create a district with more than 26,000 students.
Scholars generally agree, he said, “you don’t want to be lower than, like, 5,000 (students), but you don’t want to be these massive behemoths, because then you can get sort of difficult to maneuver.”
The average U.S. school district has about 3,700 students and 7 schools, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics.
Chin’s study concludes in the same way many of the Asheville-Buncombe consolidation studies did — with an urge to study more, though on a national scale.
Buncombe policymakers interested in studying consolidation and using some of his methods should study the most comparable of the 18 counties that merged in the past 30 years, which consolidation achieved the most cost savings and why, Chin said.
Eric Houck, Ed.D. program coordinator and associate professor at UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Education, said Chin’s research was able to make connections other research hadn’t and had “reopened” the consolidation topic.
“He confirmed a lot of findings previous studies have also found, not only in North Carolina, but across the broader literature on school consolidation,” Houck said.
Houck, who has studied school finance and consolidation nationwide, said research shows “consolidation is a good idea for school districts in North Carolina because it gives poor districts access to a greater tax base.”
But when districts consolidate, Houck said, voters may feel they’ve lost representation and autonomy.
“School boards are democratically elected governing bodies; they have the public’s trust,” Houck said. “The public gets to express their level of trust or mistrust in those bodies through elections. … So consolidation can be a threat to some people’s idea of democratic autonomy.”
In June, a new law mandating Buncombe County Board of Education districts be redrawn was touted by conservatives as a way to express autonomy by getting more Republicans on the board and potentially more granular representation in rural areas.
That law, House Bill 66, now is faltering because of district incongruity issues.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Andrew R. Jones is a Watchdog investigative reporter. Email email@example.com. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.