Civic

Commissioners: Need More Data on School Closure

Asheville – The Buncombe County Commissioners mirrored dissatisfaction in their constituency over the management of Asheville City Schools (ACS). Complaints have been running hot at the city as well as county meetings as Asheville City Council works on appointing new school board members. A lot of the dissatisfaction appears to have stemmed from a surprise announcement of the intent to close the Asheville Primary School.

Commissioner disgruntlement followed a seemingly routine, professionally-delivered update on capital projects from Assistant Superintendent Shane Cassida. Cassida explained population growth had slowed. Whereas earlier projections estimated the school system would be serving 5,000 students by 2020, that number has hovered around 4,350-4,400. A lot of people moved away during COVID, but now, they’re starting to move back.

Cassida explained Asheville Primary and the Montford North Star Academy were opened to accommodate the anticipated increase in population that never happened. Instead, the SILSA campus has been maxed out and needs more space. Fortunately, ACS has discretion over how many out-of-district students it admits, which is usually around 400-500, representing about 75% of requests.

Following the brief, Commissioner Al Whitesides asked for an accounting of the $270,000 in lottery proceeds the county had given the schools for black mold abatement in the Asheville Primary building. Cassida said when the money had been received, nobody was expecting the school system to close the building. Also, the extent of the molding could only be established through destructive analysis, and that could trigger lead and asbestos abatement as well, as the school was built in the mid-1950s. Then, when the pandemic hit, updating the HVAC system was a more pressing need. That said, only about $110,000 was spent to remove the mold; only half of the building had been affected.

Whitesides next asked about structural analysis of the school, and ACS Director of Facilities & Properties Don Sims said there was no need to perform such a study. Normally, those analyses aren’t undertaken unless something is noticeably amiss, like masonry cracks or unlevel floors.

“Well, that’s surprising, because the superintendent told me that the building was not safe!” exclaimed Whitesides. Sims explained that when the moldy canvas was removed from the pipes, it was discovered that the pipes were shot. They were not replaced, but only reinsulated with a moisture barrier. The asbestos and lead issues remain. In addition, an outside firm had concluded upgrades were needed for sewer, water, electricity, and HVAC. That study was completed when Greg Israel was still working for the county.

Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara asked what would be involved in keeping the school and making the needed repairs. At that, Sims added to the list of problems things like the leaking gym roof and window glazing that contains asbestos. He said a pipe could burst at any time, but the metal is so thin, it might not be able to hold a weld. Having sunk $500,000 into repairs already, the building would have to be gutted at a cost of about $6 million to get it safe.

Complicating the story, routes for the I-26 connector keep moving around. Back when it was supposed to remain near the building, it would have required the redesign of on-premises roads, and ACS thought they might be able to get funds for new windows or site development from the Department of Transportation, but the final route landed too far away.

Whitesides liked the idea of refurbishing rather than relocating the school. He said 90% of the city’s disadvantaged youth live within a 3-mile radius. After that, the school representatives revealed more about traffic and other concerns.

Whitesides thought the commissioners should make it known that they do not support the closing of the school at this time. He added the process, “had not been transparent at all.” He faulted the superintendent and school board for, “springing something this critical on the whole community at the last minute.”

Cassida explained the process for closing a school required a facilities study, which had been done. Then, the public comment had to be taken, and that was occurring simultaneously at the board of education. Following that, the school would be closed under the protocols of the Department of Public Instruction. He added that the school system had a plan for relocating the school’s classes into other facilities.

Beach-Ferrara said the displacements were still moving against the commissioners’ goal of increasing pre-K enrollment, and Chair Brownie Newman said he needed more information. It was therefore decided to have a formal discussion, with more details from the facilities assessment as well as comments collected by the school board, at the commissioners’ next meeting.

Kickback? Secret Plot? Babble?

During a presentation describing the estimated $51 million Buncombe County will receive in the latest round of COVID relief, Commissioner Parker Sloan asked for help understanding the statement, “State and local governments are allowed to transfer to a private nonprofit organization, a public benefit corporation involved in the transportation of passengers or cargo or a special-purpose unit of state or local government.”

Presenter Rachael Nygaard reassured him the statement was poorly written, and, as yet, staff had only figured out some parts of it. So, in the absence of clarity, it was a best practice to cut and paste, unedited, whatever the federal government wrote in the legislation. For this and other matters, county staff uses their “access to the network” for interpretation and clarity.

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