Civic

Support Needed for Low-Income Internet Schooling

Asheville – The most substantial portion of Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell’s update on the 30-60-90 plan, soon to be renamed, pertained to the creation of PODS, which stands for Positive Opportunities to Develop Success. 

The program was presented to the city council by three ` guests, the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville’s (HACA’s) Director of Resident Services Shaunda Sandford, Asheville City Schools’ (ACS’) Executive Director of Student Support Services Kidada Wynn, and the now-retired but still engaged Gene Bell. Bell’s long resume of service with dignity and insight includes chairing the school board and working 12 years as the executive director of HACA.

Sandford took the lead telling how about eight organizations had partnered to provide internet access to children whose families could not afford it, now that COVID has pushed public instruction online. Following an overview of abstractions characteristic of social programs, Sandford reported the program, now in its fifth week, was serving 200 students through 23 terminals at 11 sites, mostly in municipal and public housing community centers. Sandford said the average income of families in public housing is $6,456, and access to private internet tutoring can cost $75/hour, plus extra for daycare. 

In addition to providing online learning, which shuts down at 1:30 pm, PODS gives students opportunities to engage in enrichment and extracurricular activities until 6 pm, so parents can work a 9-5 job. The program is free, but students must sign up. Sandford said kids had actually been lining up at 7:30 am, not realizing there was a reservation system – and there’s a waiting list of about 200. There are plans to launch additional PODS programming in Pisgah View and Deaverview, and a Spanish-speaking PODS center just opened in the Burton Street Community Center. Campbell was thanked for making sufficient, socially-distanced space available, but it was an insufficiency of staff standing in the way of expansion.

Asked if this was the shape of things to come, Sandford said Asheville City School (ACS) Superintendent Dr. Gene Freeman loves PODS and wants to expand it. While it is not practical for district-wide, regular instruction; preliminary, anecdotal positive results indicate it would be worthwhile to operate PODS in afterschool programs and during school breaks.

The longer-term scenario, explained Bell, is to provide subsidized internet access to all public housing units. Bell was working with HACA’s current director, David Nash, on soliciting bids, but only one party, Skyrunner, responded to the first round of requests for proposals. So, per policy, a second round, since ended, had been triggered. Bell would prefer to provide internet like central air conditioning instead of window units because hooking up only for students not only requires switching it off and on any time somebody moves, it denies what is today critical communications infrastructure to, for example, the elderly with medical problems. Bell said it was “pathetic” for children to have to get on school buses to get to hotspots to do their schoolwork. Mayor Esther Manheimer noted a different effort, long in the works to provide seamless wireless throughout the region, has not been abandoned, only stalled because of COVID.

Bell said after infrastructure was installed, access would cost about $8 per household per month. Sandford estimated infrastructure would cost about $250,000, with ongoing total monthly bills running around $6,000. Following inquiries into how interested philanthropists might assist, Sandford said no fund had yet been established, but the ACS Foundation might be a good organization to establish one. Campbell pointed out council had approved what turned out to be the project’s flagship funding, in the amount of $50,000, with this year’s budget.

Councilwoman Julie Mayfield, who is a candidate for NC Senate, contributed that the city is unable to simply provide internet because state law prohibits municipalities from creating utilities. She added, disparagingly, “The legislature has bowed to corporate entities.” To that, Bell added another problem requiring legislative remedy was the definition of internet as something other than a utility. Were that not so, the housing authority would be able to pay for it for income-qualified residents.

Other progress on the 30-60-90 plan amounted to a lot of “looking into,” committee formation, policy development, and other soft exercises. Projects include doing something about the Vance monument, renaming streets, defunding the police 50%, getting community input on the sentencing of former Asheville Police Officer Chris Hickman, rebuilding the Equity and Inclusion Department, getting rid of city property acquired via urban renewal, creating Harm Free Zones, reworking the existing Civil Service Board, recruiting and retaining people of color, and creating a Race and Gender Conscious Policy. The latter seemed to be moving most swiftly down the pipeline, with a draft to be presented to the council on October 27.

Campbell also discussed findings from the city survey seeking public input on how to reimagine the police department. A series of demographic questions was included to, as Campbell explained, “find who is missing,” from the conversations. Later, following a complaint during public comment from David Greenson, it came out that a lot of respondents did not answer those questions, and those who did were preponderantly white. Greenson also complained that the high-tech way council is now receiving public input, with its changing long lists of instructions, is not exactly inclusive.

Campbell again stated the 30-60-90 plan was answering to the enigmatic group Black AVL Demands. Formerly described as local leaders from the black community, it now identifies as a coalition of black residents “from Asheville and beyond,” seeking “racial justice and economic inclusion.”