Buncombe Approves Outsourcing for School Merger Study - TribPapers

Buncombe Approves Outsourcing for School Merger Study

Map of the school districts with some statistics. Staff PowerPoint.

Asheville – House Bill 142, signed into law on September 29, addressed a hodgepodge of new rules for the state’s public schools. Locally, the law “clarified” requirements for establishing election districts for the Buncombe County Board of Education and ordered the Buncombe County and Asheville City boards of education to “study” merging the two districts.

On the latter, the legislation had only one paragraph. “The Buncombe County Board of Education and the Asheville City Board of Education shall jointly study the feasibility of the merger of the Buncombe County School Administrative Unit and the City of Asheville School Administrative Unit, including the potential economic and educational impact of merging the school units and any other relevant information. The Buncombe County Board of Education and the Asheville City Board of Education shall report findings and recommendations to the standing committees of the General Assembly hearing election matters no later than February 15, 2025.”

Both school boards elected to make Buncombe County the lead entity for the study. As such, they would identify funding sources, provide oversight, coordinate, supply data, and arrange for stakeholder input. So, the county’s Strategic Partnerships Director Rachael Sawyer Nygaard, who will be coordinating the effort, asked the county commissioners to approve outsourcing the leadership role. Nygaard said the successful bidder would handle analyses from academic, operational, financial, and community impact angles. They would also have to take into consideration data on student population distribution, race, ethnicity, language, poverty, and disabilities. It was hoped the commissioners would approve the successful bidder in March.

Several commissioners were not foreseeing the school boards coming to a consensus. Nygaard said the study could be crafted to report findings or options, but ultimately the boards were required to agree on recommendations. In response, Chair Brownie Newman pointed out that the bill only appeared to use the word and concept “jointly” once. He said it wasn’t unreasonable that two independent school boards with independently-elected members could genuinely have differences of opinion. County Manager Avril Pinder clarified that the original bill only required a study, but the final version added the requirement for recommendations. At this, Newman foresaw each filing their own recommendations.

Commissioner Amanda Edwards encouraged her peers to be optimistic. She said that although coming together would be uncomfortable, the county had a great community engagement team. Commissioner Parker Sloan felt the local organizations and their constituents were all going to enter into the study with good intentions. He, however, said those who brought forth the legislation “could think less of what we or our constituents think.”

Newman replied that he had heard that the local delegation was wholly supportive of the study, if not for a particular outcome—at least “more than other things that have been dropped on us in the past.” Inasmuch as the study was mandated, Commissioner Martin Moore moved to approve Nygaard’s request, and the voting was unanimously in favor.

In Other Matters –

Buncombe County is now streaming meetings of the Board of Equalization and Review. The board reviews and decides all property assessment appeals that cannot be settled through informal conversations with staff.

Last year, the board heard 36 appeals. Of those, 25 late applications were approved, and one commercial real estate appeal was settled. The remainder of appeals pertained to commercial or residential, personal or real property.

By streaming these meetings, the county did more than uphold its commitments to transparency. It not only deterred applicants from expecting anybody to unreasonably stretch the rules to fit their budgets, it also fortified the board members’ backbones to act with integrity. Last year, the livestreams had 756 views.

This year, the board will hear 88 appeals. Meetings began on October 18 and will continue through December.

Under the county’s current tax assessor, Keith Miller, a lot of changes have been made to how the county manages appeals. These were made to be more accommodating to the taxpayer.

The appeals process now requires a taxpayer to submit a completed appeals form along with supporting evidence like photographs. Staff will review the documents and notify the taxpayer of any changes made in light of the new information. The taxpayer will then have 30 days to inform the county of any intention to pursue a formal appeal.

After that, the appellant will enter into negotiations with the tax office before setting a date for a formal appeal. Should the appellant not like the decision from this step, he would still have the option of appealing to the North Carolina Property Tax Commission; that failing, he could exhaust the legal system by appealing to the North Carolina Court of Appeals and then the North Carolina Supreme Court.