Early voting begins April 28, and for the first time in Asheville City Schools’ history, Board of Education members will be elected. The ratification in November of House Bill 400 ended the appointment of board members, and it expanded the number of ACS board members from five to seven.
Eight candidates will advance to the November general election. Four will be joining current members George Sieburg, Peyton O’Connor and Chair James Carter, whose terms end in two years. That’s when the remaining three will be elected in 2024.
During the Asheville City Association of Educators’ candidate forum on April 22, seven of the eight — Liza English-Kelly, Amy Ray, Rebecca Strimer, Jesse Warren, Pepi Acebo, Miri Massachi and Sarah Thornburg — gave voters a peek into how they’d help Asheville City Schools, if elected. Candidate William “Bill” Young was unable to attend. Young is a retired Asheville City Schools employee and father of former Asheville City Council member Keith Young.
Once formed, the new school board will be responsible for hiring the next superintendent of ACS—Superintendent Dr. Gene Freeman plans to retire in late November—navigating a struggling financial situation and adequately addressing the achievement gap between Black and white students.
The candidates were asked a set of six open-ended questions ranging from topics concerning school closures, student mental health, potential consolidation into Buncombe County Schools and the achievement gap. Here’s what each had to say:
Liza English-Kelly, a former ACS employee who worked at Asheville Primary School, believes one way to address the achievement gap between Black and white students is by expanding access to pre-K and public Montessori.
Miri Massachi, a youth movement instructor, agrees with the expansion of pre-K. In regards to mental health, Massachi is advocating for an increase in counselors and therapists on campuses. She is also in favor of implementing a variety of programs, such as a check-in system where teachers would check up on the social-emotional health of students placed in designated small groups. As a board member, Massachi would also work to “provide teachers with the freedom and time to emphasize the importance of mental health for children.”
Pepi Acebo, long-time schools activist and small business owner, spoke extensively on the budget, advocating for an increase in enrollment by 500 students. He claims that ACS’ plan to grow enrollment by 500 students only to then lose 500 students in the process is why the district is facing a budget crisis: “When we look at the cost and we don’t look at revenue, we’re in trouble.”
Rebecca Strimer, a social work professional, believes that the immediate use of ESSER funds is necessary to increase mental health support on campus grounds. Praising the in-school health center already on the Asheville Middle School campus, Strimer is also advocating for similar centers to be implemented in other ACS campuses. Despite the limitations that come with using temporary money to begin school programs, she said, “I think we’ve started a system that we can continue to invest in.”
Sarah Thornburg, an attorney, believes that the consolidation of ACS into Buncombe County Schools would be “a mistake.” She believes ACS benefits from its small size, allowing for increased interactions between students, staff and parents.
Amy Ray, an attorney, warns that ACS is at risk of consolidation if teacher retention is not addressed and if the district cannot sort out its financial situation. “I believe that we can save Asheville City Schools. And I will say we are in a crisis as of right now. Let’s not kid ourselves.” She wants to address these issues by ensuring that board members, the superintendent and administration from central office engage more frequently with teachers, staff members and the community.
Jesse Warren, a Marine and the former ROTC Marine instructor at Asheville High, wants to increase parent engagement in their child’s education. He said, “Teachers cannot do it by themselves.” He also wants to ensure that parents receive support from ACS regarding the mental health of their children. Warren is also advocating for increased security on all campuses.
Other highlights included school closures:
The 2021 Board of Education decision to permanently close Asheville Primary School led ACAE to question the candidates whether they would support additional school closures in order to balance the budget.
Although none of the candidates are in favor of school closures as a way to resolve ACS’ financial struggles, they never expressed that the option was off the table, either.
English-Kelly took the strongest stance on the issue: “Reactionary measures like closing a school that is successfully building relationships and transforming the face of education—expanding access to programs that are typically limited to people who are able to pay private tuition—is unacceptable. It will not fix decades of fiduciary mismanagement, and we have to do better.”
Although no candidate clearly expressed that they would never take this course of action if voted onto the board, many did relay that school closures would only be considered if absolutely necessary.
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: ACS Board of Education candidates: stance on finances, health, more