When Dr. Margaret “Maggie” Fehrman took over as superintendent of Asheville City Schools last week, she became the seventh person in the past 10 years entrusted to oversee the education of more than 4,000 of Asheville’s children.

Actually, hers is the 10th nameplate on the superintendent’s office door in the past decade, because one of her predecessors, Dr. Bobbie Short, filled in as interim superintendent three times in a stretch of particularly high turnover. Fehrman’s immediate predecessor, Dr. Rick Cruz, withdrew last month, a little over two weeks after the Asheville City Board of Education announced his hiring.

Asheville’s churn in its school superintendent’s job is extraordinary, in a profession where the average tenure in big-city public school superintendents’ offices is nearly six years. In contrast, when Rob Jackson was named superintendent of the much larger Buncombe County Schools district last year, he became just the second person to hold the job in 14 years.

But more importantly, the constant turnover in the top job complicates efforts to make meaningful progress on the city’s longtime educational challenges.

Those challenges include a local school system that, school board member Amy Ray told Asheville Watchdog, has “utterly failed Black and brown students.”

Asheville City Schools (ACS) had the worst academic achievement gap between white and Black students 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.

Grade-level proficiency results for the 2021-2022 academic year in Asheville City Schools, by race. // Graphic: Southern Coalition for Social Justice

Asheville also had the state’s greatest racial disparities in school discipline last year. Black students in ACS are nearly 12 times more likely than white students to receive short-term suspensions. Achievement gaps also persist in ACS for students with disabilities, students from poor households, and English-language learners.

The numbers haven’t budged since the ACS superintendent merry-go-round began a decade ago. Asheville ranked worst-in-state for racial achievement and discipline gaps for the 2014-2015 school year, and each new superintendent since then has vowed to fix the problem.

“There is an epidemic of Black kids falling behind in school,” Dr. Robert “Gene” Freeman said when he was introduced in December 2019 as the unanimous choice to be Asheville’s new superintendent. “So I’m here to change that.”

Freeman is gone, and the job of closing the racial gap — and addressing a cascade of other challenges — now falls to the Asheville Board of Education and Fehrman, its newly chosen superintendent.

Read Asheville Watchdog’s in-depth interview with new superintendent Maggie Fehrman.

I feel for our staff, who have kind of been whiplashed back and forth between superintendents,” George Sieburg, chair of the Asheville City Board of Education, told The Watchdog. “And, you know, we’re always hopeful. You’re always hopeful for the next superintendent. They come in with good ideas. And then when they’re gone, the next person comes in and changes things around.”

George Sieburg, chair of the Board of Education of Asheville City Schools // photo credit The Cellphone Project

“I don’t want to put it 100 percent on the superintendent,” Sieburg continued, “but I do think having turnover can prevent, or inhibit, us from from achieving the goals that we as a district want to achieve, especially around disparities in opportunities for our Black and brown youth, for example, and disparities in discipline, for sure.”

The extraordinary turnover in Asheville raises questions:

Is Asheville just unlucky? Medical issues led to the resignation of Dr. Denise Patterson, who left in 2019, and also to Cruz’s withdrawal. The COVID-19 pandemic struck just months after Freeman was named in December 2019. The stresses of the pandemic caused many teachers and administrators to retire or quit.

Is Asheville merely viewed by candidates as a stepping stone to bigger and better-paying jobs? Dr. Pam Baldwin resigned in 2017 to take the superintendent job for Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools. (She resigned from that position in 2020, after the CHCCS system came under fire for its financial irregularities and lack of transparency during her tenure. Her interim replacement at CHCCS was Dr. Jim Causby, who less than two years later would be named interim superintendent in Asheville, as Freeman’s replacement.)

Is Asheville, as a community, a hostile environment that drives education administrators away? Parents, teachers, activists, and civic leaders are all passionate about the schools here, often leading to conflicts despite professing shared goals. One longtime ACS administrator who angered some Asheville parents was voted “Best Villain” in Mountain Xpress’s “Best of WNC” poll in 2022, sharing the dubious honor with disgraced former U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn.

Then-superintendent Freeman lashed out at what he called a “lack of civility” in the community. “I mean, when I took this job, had I known how difficult the community was, I’m not so sure that it would have been something that I was eager to jump into,” he told Mountain XPress less than a year after he started. 

“The last three superintendents we’ve had here, including you, have not brought anything but mayhem to the school system,” Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides told Freeman in a May 2021 budget meeting, referencing the district’s worst-in-state racial achievement gaps and its eighth-highest per-student spending. 

“No wonder superintendents don’t stay here,” Freeman responded.

April Dockery, Executive Director of Crisis Management and Operations, Asheville City Schools. // Photo courtesy April Dockery

Asked by The Watchdog about the civic climate the new superintendent is entering, April Dockery, ACS’s executive director of operations, was blunt. She did not apply for the superintendent position, she said, despite more than two decades serving ACS.

“Why? This is a hard city,” Dockery said. “There’s a core group that really love and want to serve children. That’s why we stick around and raise our own kids here. But it’s a hard place.” She cited a lack of trust and respect for public servants, including, she said, being accosted in public by angry parents “on both sides” over the school system’s efforts to adhere to state- and federally mandated COVID-19 guidelines.

Is the Asheville Board of Education’s closed-door process for selecting superintendents resulting in the best choices? Like many school boards nationwide, Asheville’s board doesn’t reveal to the public the identities or other information about the candidates until the new superintendent is announced.

This last question is especially pertinent after the board’s late 2019 selection of Freeman — chosen despite being called “a lightning rod for critics” by a Pittsburgh TV station even as the Asheville board considered his application.

Secrecy of selection process

Following the unexpected resignation of Denise Patterson as superintendent in August 2019, the Asheville City Board of Education surveyed the community to ask its preferred qualities in the next superintendent. Of more than 1,000 replies, “Trusted by the community and staff” was the most important criterion cited, followed by “long term commitment to the district and our community.”

Robert Eugene “Gene” Freeman, superintendent of Asheville City Schools 2020-2022 // Photo credit: ACS

Meanwhile, a consultant hired to facilitate the search for Freeman’s replacement at the Fox Chapel Area School District in a suburb of Pittsburgh reported to the board that the top priority for the next superintendent was to repair a general lack of trust and feeling that the district was not being fully transparent.

A simple Google search before Freeman’s hiring would have revealed his history of leaving contracts early, complaints from teachers and parents about poor communications and lack of transparency, missing work for three months and refusing to say why, and having his personal lawyer send threatening letters to several parents who, on social media, criticized his management.

Much of the information was first reported by PublicSource, a nonprofit news organization in Pittsburgh. 

Freeman signed a five-year contract with the Manheim Township school board, near Lancaster, Pa., in December 2012. He resigned within a year.

In June 2019, less than a year after negotiating a new five-year contract to be superintendent of Fox Chapel schools — a contract that added a retirement clause that would pay him 80 percent of his $232,553 base salary — Freeman announced his intention to retire in June 2020.

According to a Pittsburgh CBS-TV report, Freeman lashed out at critics at an October 2019 Fox Chapel school board meeting after he was accused of pressuring staff to shred allegedly incriminating documents. According to certificates from the shredding company, the shredding took place one day after PublicSource submitted public records requests seeking administrative salary information, the superintendent’s schedule, and copies of emails sent from residents to the board.

A law firm hired by the Fox Chapel board to investigate the allegations determined that even though the school system failed to keep track of which documents had been shredded, it was unable to find any evidence that the shredding was improper. In an email to PublicSource, Freeman wrote that the records sent for shredding were confidential and information about them could not be shared. “Residents should be concerned if documents were not being shredded,” he wrote.

Freeman also asserted that he had made the Fox Chapel district more transparent during his tenure than it was before he arrived there.

At the time of the October 2019 Fox Chapel meeting, Freeman had already applied for the Asheville City Schools superintendent position. He did not attend the Dec. 3, 2019, board meeting, or any Fox Chapel meetings after that.

Although still on health-related leave from Fox Chapel, Freeman traveled to Asheville on Dec. 18, 2019, where he was introduced as the unanimous selection to be the next superintendent, with a start date of July 1, 2020.

Freeman declined initially to comment on his three-month absence from the Fox Chapel job. PublicSource obtained an email from Freeman to the Fox Chapel school board in January 2020 in which he wrote, “My absence is a personnel issue covered by HIPAA,” a reference to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the federal law that protects the privacy of health information. 

It is unknown if the Asheville board knew that, even as it was preparing to hire Freeman, he was at the same time asserting that he was unable to fulfill his duties as Fox Chapel superintendent because of apparent ongoing health-related issues.

The announcement of Freeman’s hiring in Asheville was followed quickly by accounts in Mountain XPress and on local social media of his background in Pennsylvania, including both his successes in improving the academic ratings of his schools and the turmoil cited by the PublicSource reporting. Despite the revelations, and still four months before Freeman would assume his new job, the Asheville school board said it was confident he was the best choice for the job.

Freeman’s personal lawyer, meanwhile, sent at least a half dozen “cease and desist” letters to Fox Chapel parents, threatening legal action against them for using Facebook and other social media to communicate “false and unsubstantiated information to the community in which he will be working following his retirement from the FCSD.” The letter did not specify which information was false or unsubstantiated, but concluded, “Your efforts to distort the truth in this regard are actionable.”

“Today, I received via certified mail, a a cease and desist which accuses me of being in engaged in an effort to sabatoge Mr. Freeman’s future employment,” Fox Chapel parent Elizabeth Rambeau told the school board.

Mila Sanina, a veteran journalist who until 2022 was executive director of PublicSource, told Asheville Watchdog that while Freeman often spoke about how the media was “out to get him” or biased against him, he never disputed any facts or asked for a correction or retraction of anything the news organization wrote about him.

The search process that resulted in the board’s selection of Freeman was facilitated by the Asheville law firm Campbell Shatley, whose principal, Christopher Campbell, also served as the attorney for Asheville City Schools.

Dean Shatley, also a principal of Campbell Shatley, told Mountain Xpress that the reporting of PublicSource was included in the background check provided to members of the Asheville Board of Education in advance of their decision to give Freeman the job.

Asked by Asheville Watchdog if the board was informed that Freeman had gone on an extended HIPAA-related leave even as he was negotiating with Asheville, Shatley responded: “We are unable to disclose specific information we share with a client, as the communication is privileged and confidential.  However, I can generally state that we always share candidate background information with a board of education when we are assisting in the search process.”

“Fulbright Scholar”

One bit of background research that apparently slipped through the cracks involved Freeman’s résumé. In announcing his hiring, the Asheville school board said “Dr. Freeman is a 2000 Fulbright Scholar,” a credential it also touted on the ACS website.

In 1999 Freeman applied for and received a grant from the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program to study for one month in Japan. The program was established by the Japanese government to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Fulbright Scholar program, which is operated by the U.S. State Department.

According to the Japanese program’s website, the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund was created “to show the Japanese people’s appreciation for the Fulbright Program” by inviting thousands of American teachers and students for short-term visits to schools in Japan.

Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund grant recipients do not typically use the title “Fulbright Scholar.” The American agency that operates the Fulbright Scholar program told Asheville Watchdog it could find no record of a Robert Eugene Freeman in its files.

Paid to depart early

In April 2022, two years after retiring from the Fox Chapel district in Pennsylvania, and just two years into his four-year contract with ACS, Freeman retired again, effective Nov. 30, 2022. The Asheville board later negotiated to pay Freeman more than $94,000 to depart early, on June 15.

“Although some may question why we’re buying out the remainder of Dr. Freeman’s contract with 5½ months remaining, the School Board is charged with acting in the best, long-term interest of the school district,” the board wrote in a news release. “Further details are confidential, and the Board has no additional information to share about Dr. Freeman at this time.”

Asheville Watchdog was unable to locate Freeman to offer him a chance to respond to these questions. “I do not have a good contact for Gene anymore. Sorry!” ACS spokesman Dillon Huffman told The Watchdog this month.

No one responded to voicemails left at several phone numbers listed for Robert Eugene Freeman in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Property records show that the Asheville condo he bought in February 2020 was sold in April 2022.

Why confidential?

In May 2022 the Asheville Board of Education named veteran educator Dr. James Causby to be interim superintendent while it conducted a national search for Freeman’s successor. This time around, the board elected to hire a professional search firm that specialized in academic hiring.

The board agreed to pay $30,000 to Asheville-based Summit Search Solutions Inc., to identify and screen potential candidates for the job. As in the past, the board decided to conduct the search behind closed doors, keeping all details about the candidates from public scrutiny.

Carrie Coward, president of Summit Search Solutions of Asheville, which managed the superintendent search for Asheville City Schools // Photo credit: Summit Search Solutions Inc.

Carrie Coward, president of Summit Search Solutions, said she believes the decision to keep things confidential was wise.

“I’ve been doing search work since the early 2000s,” Coward said, and in comparing confidential searches with public searches, “the main difference is the robustness and diversity of the slate. You’ll get 50 percent more people that will look at a job if they know that it’s confidential.” 

After a three-month search that attracted 49 applicants, including at least one from within the ACS district, the board narrowed its search to nine semifinalists, all of whom were interviewed by the board. One of the semifinalists was from ACS.

Of those, four were selected as finalists. One of the finalists was from North Carolina, but not from the Asheville district.

All of the finalists were thoroughly vetted, Coward said, checking not just the references supplied by the candidates, but also calling references who were not on the applications. 

“We used third-party vendors to actually do the comprehensive background checks, outside of the personal reference checking,” Coward said. “They’re checking identity, Social Security number, any aliases, education, motor vehicle records, federal criminal, county criminal, civil lawsuits, sex offender registry, credit check, web press, social media check … So that’s a pretty extensive search of everything public that’s out there in the ether about you.”

“And we followed up with the candidates to ask any questions that were concerns, and when needed shared those findings with the search chairs. And then, obviously, the board saw that information,” Coward said.

On May 15 the board announced that it had unanimously chosen Rick Cruz, deputy superintendent of the Houston (Texas) Independent School District, to be the next Asheville superintendent.

Amy Ray, elected to the Asheville City Schools Board of Education in 2022 // Photo courtesy of Amy Ray

“The truth is, all four of the finalists were highly qualified, and any one of them would have been an excellent choice,” Ray, the vice chair of the Asheville school board, told The Watchdog.

Sieburg, the school board chair, said the seven members of the board debated how much information about the finalists they could share with teachers and staff “without violating someone’s confidentiality.” In the end, they decided people would have to trust the school board to make the best choice.

“In a perfect world this would be a completely open search,” Sieburg said. “We would have all the finalists in an auditorium, and everyone could sit there and listen to them. Unfortunately, just because of the way that we know things can bounce back on people, especially on the other end [in the candidates’ home districts], we knew we couldn’t. We’re not at that perfect world yet.”

Houston, we have a problem

As in the past, the Asheville Board of Education did not identify Cruz before he was officially announced as the next superintendent. His hiring, then, was a surprise to most parents, teachers, and other residents of Asheville.

A native of Mexico, Cruz was the No. 2 official in charge of the nation’s eighth-largest school system, with nearly 200,000 students across 273 schools. But he was also part of a mass exodus of Houston school administrators who left ahead of a state takeover of HISD on June 1.

Rick Cruz, named superintendent of Asheville City Schools in 2023, withdrew because of a family medical emergency // Photo credit: Houston Independent School District

Citing years of poor achievement in the Houston public schools, the Texas Education Agency announced in March that it was removing HISD’s elected school board, superintendent, and senior staff, and replacing them with managers appointed by the TEA, effectively putting the state in charge of its largest school district. The takeover put Cruz’s job in jeopardy, despite his track record of improving school performance and narrowing achievement gaps in low-income schools.

On June 6, just 16 days after welcoming Cruz to Asheville, the board announced the “unfortunate news that due to a family medical emergency, Dr. Rick Cruz is unable to assume the position of superintendent.”

Two days later, the board announced that Maggie Fehrman — only then revealed to be one of the unnamed four finalists for the job other than Cruz — was the new unanimous choice to be superintendent.

Dr. Maggie Fehrman took over as Asheville City Schools superintendent on July 17. // Photo credit: Asheville City Schools

“We are absolutely thrilled to welcome Dr. Maggie Fehrman as our new superintendent,” Sieburg announced. “Her exceptional leadership, strategic thinking, and unwavering commitment to student success are truly inspiring. With her innovative approach and genuine dedication to fostering inclusive and supportive learning environments, we are confident that Dr. Fehrman will take our district to new heights of educational excellence.”

“To be honest, the strength of the slate here was deep,” Coward said. “From what I understand, all four [finalists] could have been offered that job. They had a hard time deciding between the four. They chose Rick, but when he fell off, there was not a lot of panic. It was more just going back to the others to see who they wanted to pursue first, and if that person was still interested and available. And that, by the grace of God, happened.”

Cruz was named chief operating officer of the YMCA of Greater Houston earlier this month.

Passed over for Decatur job

Just as with Cruz only weeks before, Fehrman’s selection was a surprise.

In April 2021 the City Schools of Decatur, Ga., appointed Fehrman, who was then assistant superintendent, to take over after the previous superintendent was forced out following an ethics investigation, according to Decaturish, an online news organization.

“Considering the immediate needs of our students and staff,” the school board announced, “we decided that rather than conducting a search at this time, CSD deserves to have a leader in place who already fully understands our most pressing issues.”

The appointment disappointed some local groups, including the City Schools of Decatur Black Parent Alliance and the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights, both of which called for conducting a national search with greater transparency.

Fehrman was named interim superintendent the following month, on a one-year contract.

“While Fehrman was hired to bring stability to the district amidst the chaos, her hiring without a national search and an early misstep have created questions about her ability to lead the district,” Decaturish reported.   

“A recent misstep by Fehrman created a furor and offended Black families in the district,” reporter Zoe Seller wrote. “When Decaturish asked Fehrman whether the district was considering ending the district’s mask policy following new CDC guidance, Fehrman said, ‘We feel not a sufficient number have been vaccinated, and we don’t want the unvaccinated people, particularly staff and students of color who have chosen not to get vaccinated, to feel they’re more restricted.’”

Fehrman “later apologized for the comment, pledging to do everything she could to mitigate the harm she caused,” Seller wrote, “but it left a negative impression” on some members of the Black community.

The board renewed her contract for a second year while the city’s school board conducted a national search for a permanent superintendent. The board publicly encouraged Fehrman to apply for the job, but on March 24, 2023, just before the board announced that another candidate was the sole finalist, Fehrman withdrew her application.

“As the Board is preparing to name the finalist for superintendent, I want to share that I am not seeking the superintendent position in City Schools of Decatur at the conclusion of my current contract,” Fehrman said.

Two days later the Decatur school board issued a statement: “Dr. Maggie Fehrman is not planning on continuing as Superintendent beyond the 2022-2023 school year and is pursuing other opportunities. She has served as superintendent since 2021 and, among many other accomplishments, led the development of ‘All In Decatur,’ the current strategic plan.”

In announcing Gyimah Whitaker as the new City Schools of Decatur superintendent, school board chair James Herndon said “We are thrilled to have [Whitaker] helming CSD, particularly at the start of ‘All In Decatur,’ the district’s new five-year strategic plan.”

Fehrman’s plan, now being implemented by Whitaker, is described as providing the Decatur school system “with a clear focus on students as we confront and overcome racial, economic, and social injustices and disparities.”

Fehrman will now have an opportunity to help the Asheville school district craft its own five-year strategic plan. The school board has been operating without a strategic plan since the last one expired in 2020. It, too, cited racial disparities as the biggest problem.

Sieburg said the ACS board was fully informed about Fehrman’s early misstep in Decatur, as well as the Texas state takeover of Cruz’s school district in Houston, before making its decisions.

Just before starting her tenure in Asheville, Fehrman told The Watchdog that the focus of any new plan had to be equity.

“I mean, based on what I hear with the priorities, that’s already there: ending disproportionate outcomes. Making sure every student in the school system is able to achieve high success, to make sure that we don’t have disproportionate discipline outcomes … making sure each and every student has the same opportunity, the same support, and the same chance of success.”

Racial disparities

Racial disparities have persisted since Asheville opened its first public schools in the 1880s. Asheville High School did not fully integrate until 1969, 15 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional. When desegregating Asheville City Schools in the late 60’s and early 70’s, federal courts required the district to monitor academic performance, disciplinary rates, hiring and retention of faculty and staff of color, dropout rates, and graduation rates.

But as years passed, the monitoring stopped.

Dr. Dwight Mullen, emeritus professor at University of North Carolina at Asheville and creator of the State of Black Asheville project // Photo credit: UNCA

Dwight Mullen, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, told The Watchdog in 2020 that his students began collecting data on the racial disparities in 2007, as part of what became annual State of Black Asheville reports. 

“When the students first issued the reports to the school board in 2007, it was the first time the board had seen a composite report on Black student outcomes since the federal courts stopped monitoring,” Mullen said.

“The overall picture had not been done for years. So it had been some time [since] they had some idea of what was going on subject by subject and grade by grade. Just having the data in front of people was so shocking.” 

“I remember … the students were getting accused of cherry-picking” the data results, Mullen said. [The board] “thought they had gone through the data and manipulated it to make outcomes look so bad. Then they figured out at the end of it that this is the real picture.”

The 2007 study found, Mullen said, “that in each level from K to 6, and then in middle school, and then in the high school, for each subject area, you can find different causes for the disparities. And it ranges from teacher student relationships to the absence of sequential skill building. So in other words, there are subjects that build on each year’s worth of knowledge being gained by students. So if one year is skipped, you’re perpetually behind, and you get further and further behind.” 

“And that’s often cited as one of the major reasons for the disparities, that students are lacking basic skills, but they’re promoted anyway. But I think that student teacher relationships are a huge factor also. As the students get older, the relationships get worse.”

As first reported by Carolina Public Press, the Asheville school district had the fifth-worst racial achievement gap among the roughly 12,000 local school districts in the nation for the period 2009-2013, according to a 2018 study by Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis.

The achievement gaps in Asheville schools have continued to widen since 2018, according to the 2021-2022 Racial Equity Report Card from the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice. In 2018-19, ACS Black and brown students scored below white students statewide in every tested category.

By the end of the 2021-2022 academic year, test score data showed that fewer than 30 percent of the system’s Black students were meeting minimum state proficiency levels in reading, math, and science, compared to nearly 83 percent of white students.

According to Asheville City Schools data gathered by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, white students in grades 3-8 were 10.7 times more likely than Black students to achieve “career and college ready” scores on their tests.

Results for the 2021-2022 academic year in Asheville City Schools. // Graphic: Southern Coalition for Social Justice
Results for the 2021-2022 academic year in Buncombe County Schools. // Graphic: Southern Coalition for Social Justice
Results for the 2021-2022 academic year in Henderson County Schools. // Graphic: Southern Coalition for Social Justice

The current State of Black Asheville report says: “The persistence of disparate racial outcomes over time indicates the failure of accountability measures. As Superintendents change and Board appointments shift, accountability continues to not exist.”

Broad array of challenges

In addition to the racial divide, the new superintendent must also grapple with broader challenges:

Enrollment in Asheville schools is declining as parents move their children to private and charter schools, and as the cost of living — the highest in North Carolina — compels young families to move to more affordable areas.  The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction projects that ACS will have 4,034 students in the 2023-2024 school year, down 176 students from 2022-23. Schools are funded based on average daily attendance.

The General Assembly continues to refuse to fulfill what the state Supreme Court has ruled, in its Leandro decisions, is its constitutional duty to  provide North Carolina’s schoolchildren with a quality basic education. Instead, the lawmakers propose to expand the school voucher program, which if enacted would divert millions in tax dollars from public education to private schools. Both Asheville City and Buncombe County school boards oppose the voucher expansion.

Academic achievement is plunging across-the-board and teachers are leaving the profession because of burnout and low pay, amid increasing mental health concerns for students in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Across the nation, school board meetings — once considered tame, even boring — have become a culture-war battleground. Parents and activist groups have become more confrontational over issues including equity, teaching the history of slavery in America, and discussions of sexuality and gender.

The state’s GOP-supermajority General Assembly introduced proposed legislation that would allow parents to sue and force the firing of local school superintendents for violating their “fundamental right to parent” their children, including parental oversight over textbook selection, classroom discussions, extracurricular activities, library privileges, and even curriculum.

The legislation, which House Speaker Tim Moore said last week is likely dead for the current session, would also make it easier for parents to ban certain books from school libraries, and to file criminal charges if children get access to such books without prior written permission from parents.

Sieburg, the school board chair, told The Watchdog the challenges don’t just fall on the new superintendent, but also on the community and its support for the superintendent.

Maggie says she wants to be here forever, and I agree, I want to make sure she’s here forever,” Sieburg said. “We want [her] here long term because we know that stability in the superintendent position helps build a broader culture.”

Keeping the new superintendent long-term will require the entire community to work together,” Dockery, the ACS administrator and former principal, said. “We have to trust each other and we have to cultivate the system of trust. Until we all agree that children are the most important thing, it doesn’t matter, it’s not going to change.”

Watchdog reporter Sally Kestin contributed to this reporting.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Peter Lewis is executive editor and a reporter for The Watchdog. Email plewis@avlwatchdog.org   

32 replies on “The names change, but the problems persist in Asheville City Schools”

  1. Why haven’t we combined Buncombe County Schools and Asheville City Schools? It seems like we have parallel systems that gobble up funding. Let’s pay our teachers a decent salary and get out of the way.

    1. Teacher pay is primarily up to the State General Assembly, unfortunately. They aren’t interested in paying teachers nor public education.

  2. I consulted to a number of school systems in the Chicago suburbs. One community had 3 separate school districts, which were ultimately combined into one district, saving a significant amount of money in administration costs. Combining Buncombe and Asheville districts would accomplish the same, allowing more money for teachers. I find it appalling that the salaries for teachers in NC are so low, primarily due to the legislature here.

  3. In 1989, when my daughter was about to enter kindergarten and I went to my first school board meeting in the midwest town we were living in, there was a lot of hand wringing and eyebrow burrowing over “the gap”. The gap has been around for a long time and I suspect will be with us into the future as apparently solutions are not to be readily found and I don’t think you can fault any one superintendent for it.

  4. How much of the black achievement gap is down to poor teaching and how much to poor parenting? Or to the poor teaching of parenting to black students? And I agree with an earlier comment that having a separate school district for Asheville city is a gross waste of money.

    1. These are systemic problems, but as educators we can control what we teach, not how parent’s parent. The buck stops with us.
      I honestly believe most parents are doing the best they can; none of us know the challenges they face, so I choose to give them the benefit of the doubt.

  5. The article says that following desegregation courts required monitoring of racial disparities etc. Does anyone have a cite for this court case?

  6. The best way to address the achievement gap is to address the systemic causes of poverty. It is hard to concentrate on school when you come from a home where your basic needs aren’t being met.

    1. Bingo. As I stated above, none of us know the full extent of what our families might be dealing with. A few years ago I had a student who was living with his dad in a car. No permanent housing and I don’t think the father had the skills needed to navigate the system and get the assistance he needed. Yet some would be quick to point him out as a “bad parent.”

  7. After a deep dive, I have one question…why does the City of Asheville have a their own school district? 15% of Buncombe county students. Tax payers burden for two school district administrations. Lowest ratings. Can’t keep the top job filled (which points directly to whom they must answer to, perhaps those who think they know more need to be replaced?).

    1. To be clear, the ACS district is not the same as the City of Asheville. Less than half of homes in Asheville are within the district and these homes pay a separate ACS tax. That tax is only for the supplement, not the district. ACS schools are funded primarily by STATE taxes, then County then, in a very limited way, the special ACS supplemental tax.

  8. Our various systems and institutions are not working for the best interest of the people they are supposed to serve. Public education is one of those. I believe that many educational philosophers, teachers, parents and schools held a vision of moving society forward/improving society for all through education for all, as challenging as that is but imperative to fulfill the promise of a democratic republic. That, as yet unfulfilled, vision helped to hold us together as a community, state, nation. Now the culture wars are aided and abetted by people in government, tearing us apart as a society and destroying what semblance of a social contract the schools had. I fear that being a public school teacher has become a virtually impossible profession. Add to that a system that allows people such as Freeman to scam it! Think of how else, the money he took could have been used? Not to mention the work he did not do for our schools. This top down, undemocratic system that lacks transparency and public input has to be re-envisioned for the public schools to survive much less thrive.
    Our country is starving the public schools for funding and necessary resources while our national representatives approve an almost trillion dollar military budget for a Pentagon rife with waste, fraud and abuse. Privatizing everything is not the answer to our challenges. Part of the answer is re-thinking our priorities and what is needed for ‘the commons’ of a society to thrive, adapt to change and foster resilience. I say this as an elder, a parent of children who grew up in the public schools, a former public and private school teacher and one of the founders of the first public charter school in Buncombe County, which was founded in great part to be a model of needed educational reform. Re-thinking, re-imagining and advocacy for better schools and better school operations is an enormous but achievable challenge.

    1. 100%, Anne. Sadly ACS just decided to privatize our school lunches to an offshore international conglomerate. It’s sad.

      1. Rapacious corporate capitalism has become so powerful in all aspects of our society that it has become the ocean we swim in and makes us unable to address critical social, environmental and economic challenges that will only continue to worsen unless we, as a people, can pull together to work together. We have an economic system that the public schools beg for crumbs when they should be one of the best funded institutions in our society. Yet, the public’s schools are expected to successfully address all the varied challenges facing families and how they affect children’s learning…impossible to do in a country that has a military/industrial complex, a prison/industrial complex, let’s people go hungry, homeless, without healthcare, separates families at our borders…this is not a society with humane values…people and planet are always secondary to profit and greed.

  9. Great story but I wish it had touched on one of the root problems. The district is not representative of Buncombe County or even the City of Asheville. The district boundaries have been frozen in time since the nineteen sixties. Fifty plus years of Asheville’s development have been ignored. At least a third of the City of Asheville is not inside the City School District. The district now contains many of the very wealthiest and very poorest neighborhoods and it is well known that family income and educational levels are highly predictive of student achievement. The achievement gap is unbridgeable due to demographics as much as anything else.

    1. 100%, Ed. The district boundaries must be reshaped to match the city. It’s not just an issue for the achievement gap, it’s an issue for the district’s financial survival.

  10. I pulled my child from Asheville Middle School in 2005 when his class of twenty students was commandeered by four students referred to by the principal as “exceptional students.” Yes, these exceptional students had the right to an education, but not at the expense of the other sixteen who were deprived of theirs. Public schools enroll a number of students who face adverse social conditions. Such pathology can lead to classroom disruptions which harm all students. The fact that an inordinate number of students are being suspended indicates that these social issues are not being addressed successfully.

  11. ACS erollment is actually down over 500 students vs the 2015-16 school year from 4,558, marking a 10% decline in enrollment. A major element of this was the unnecessary closure of the very much in-demand Asheville Primary school, which was a draw for many coming from outside the city. That closure and other drivers of the lower enrollment, distrust among parents chief amoong them – has led to the loss of millions of dollars in NC state funding. There’s an immense amount of deferred maintenance in our schools due to lack of funding and poor management
    by the Central Office. Much of this is a crisis of previous unelected Board’s making – they simply didn’t put in the time nor effort to manage the schools and conflicts of interest and incompetence reigned supreme. If approved, HB 823 will continue to push an exodus of students from our public schools as parents opt for private schools (charter school enrollment is already up over 12% since 2019 and continues to climb). ACS will need to figure out where it stands among a very competitive educational landscape where many parents unfortunately feel that public alternatives are ‘better’. I fear that continued dwindling enrollment will encourage the County Commission to consolidate. Three Commissioners have already voiced their strong consideration of this option in the future. Ferhman is off to a great start but it’s a daunting effort.

    1. I’ll admit I waver back and forth as regards to consolidation. When I first started with ACS the demographics of the two school systems was vastly different, but it now seems that is less the case. Could ACS exist as a new district within BCS? I honestly don’t know. I understand there are also issues out of our local control, and if I read the law correctly, when two school systems merged they are required to fund to the higher level. I doubt that is something the taxpayers of Buncombe County would go along with.

      1. James – after a long discussion with a Commissioner a while back, the answer is ‘no’ ACS cannot exist within another district – these are all governed by state law. More specifically, can the ACS supplemental tax STILL be levied if there is a consolidation? The jury is out on that – it’s technically possible but problematic. So that’s a concern for a lot of ACS parents. In theory, the tax could be levied but there are legal restrictions on how it could be spent and I don’t think it would survive for long. I did not get the sense from speaking with a Commissioner that BCS would have to tax at the same level as ACS, but these are very legalistic questions. And, yes, I agree that BCS residents would be less inclined to pay more, but considering the recent decision by the Commission to raise taxes to pay for teacher salaries and the dire state of our public schools, perhaps they would.

        1. Several years back the state had a law that if districts consolidated, the lower funded district wuld have to fund to the higher level district. Probably the state would cancel that rule today since I don’t think they want any of the schools to be fully funded. I don’t know if that rule is still in existence, however.

  12. It offends me, as it should everyone, that any school board conceals the names of its finalists and only reveals the one they have chosen in a star chamber method. However, the long, sad saga of the Asheville School Board suggests that it’s time to ask an elementary question? Why are there two distinct school systems within the same geographical area? Other places, notably Williamsburg, Va., and its surrounding county have managed to consolidate. It seems to me long past the time when this issue should be front and central in Asheville/Buncombe. And that’s not the only potential area of sensible consolidation. Parks, recreation, public facilities (i.e., the Thomas Wolfe Vomitorium) are others. After all. there is only one county health department. I don’t want to hear that this is how it’s always been done in North Carolina. It’s time for a change

    1. If you were applying for a new job would you want your current employer to know it? Also, unless it’s changed (and I don’t believe it has) state law requires that when two systems merge they have to fund up to the higher per pupil level. Do you think the taxpayers of Buncombe County would agree to that?

    2. Much as I initially felt the same way about the ‘closed’ recruitment process and concealing the names of finalists, I realize that MANY potential candidates simply would not apply to a position knowing that their current district would see them publicly pursuing another job, another community and another position. Those candidates are calculating the risk of NOT getting the job and returning to their districts with a rather bruised reputation for wanting to leave their community. So, I ultimately think that a closed process is best AS LONG as there is a great deal of community input on the type of leader they want. In this case, I applaud the ACS Board (with newly elected members) for the amount of community input the solicited. I attended two listening sessions and filled out an online questionnaire as did my partner. The sad truth is that the overwhelming majority of parents did not engage whatsoever. That offends me far more than the closed process.

  13. I began teaching with ACS in 1987, and retired from full-time teaching six years ago, although I continue to substitute at Claxton Elementary, which is where I spent the majority of my career. I love ACS, but it’s sobering and sad to see how badly we are failing our black and poor students. As the article correctly states there are many reasons, but the revolving door of superintendents is certainly one of them.
    As for Dr. Freeman, I only met him twice, and he was friendly and personable. But it’s impossible to read this well researched article and not conclude that he scammed ACS, and the school board failed to do its due diligence in allowing it to happen.

  14. “Asheville High School did not integrate until 1969….”

    This statement while technically correct is grossly misleading. Asheville High School did NOT exist between 1935 and 1969. It was renamed Lee H. Edwards High School after the pre-mature passing of Principal Lee Edwards. The last class of graduates from segregated Lee Edwards High School graduated in June 1964 and it was integrated in fall 1964.

    From fall 1964 through June 1969, Lee Edwards High School was an integrated school. Parents of Black students could elect to send their children either to South French Broad High School (which replaced Stephens-Lee in 1965) or to Lee Edwards. Rodney “Hot-Rod” Johnson and Larry “Go-Go” Grant were notable Black basketball players for Lee Edwards in that era.

    In the summer of 1969 South French Broad High School became South French Broad Middle School, Lee Edwards High School reverted to Asheville High School and the students who parents had chosen to have them attend South French Broad were reassigned to the newly named Asheville High School.

  15. The story states that for decades ,asheville public schools have failed Black and Brown students. The need for alternate schools( be they charter or private) is brought on by the public school failures. Parents seeking out these schools should be allowed to take that money elsewhere. This exodus is not brought on by parents “feeling” that the public schools are poor, but by test scores that prove this failure over and over again. If I had a child in public school performing poorly, you bet I would be seeking an alternative. It is my responsibility as a parent to want the best for my kid, and Asheville city schools are not getting it done. Why not try a charter school.

    1. If you look at the numbers, you will see that it is not the higher socioeconomic students who are failing–it is in the lower socioeconomic group. So, to say the whole public system is failing is not true. Yes, they are failing a certain demographic, but that failure is more of a systemic failure that is based on racism, generational poverty and inequity. Taking money from the public school system to support charter schools mostly furthers that inequity.

  16. When has there ever been enough money for education? (especially compared to the military?) When has our government and society really put children first in a big way? We are left to our own solutions. Basic one on one tutoring at school works. It requires a strong and broad volunteer support system.
    As one person said, it is difficult to focus at school when your basic needs are not met at home. When I volunteered to help a first grader read, it opened a whole new world to the student and myself. She had problems at home and school but cherished that 50min session of undivided attention. And she progressed.
    Certainly the administration has to change but until then we need to throw the kids a life line. Drowning because adults abandon ship is not an option.

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