Whitesides Wants Transformation, Not Lip Service - TribPapers

Whitesides Wants Transformation, Not Lip Service

Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides has been advocating for better education for minority and low-income children for decades. He has played many key roles in high-profile studies, and he feels like all his efforts, and those of his colleagues along the way, are being ignored - to the detriment of two generations of Asheville's kids.

Asheville – Buncombe County’s Strategic Partnerships Director Rachael Sawyer gave the Buncombe County Commissioners an update on the study on consolidating the Buncombe County and Asheville City school districts. The study was mandated by House Bill 142, which became law on September 29, 2023.

The idea of consolidation has floated around for years. After all, just about every county in the state has only one district. Funding redundant administrative offices for both districts does not seem like a wise use of education dollars that come at a premium. Worse, viewed through today’s equity lenses, an extra district serving an urban population sure looks like drawing a line around a certain group of people to keep them out of something bigger.

Unlike Buncombe County Schools (BCS), Asheville City Schools (ACS) frequently appears on best-of lists of school districts in North Carolina. Also, unlike the county schools, ACS’ achievement gap was ranked the fifth worst in the country last year. Only 11% of its black students in grades three through eight were deemed proficient in math and 13% in English. Disciplinary action also fell disproportionately on black students, although the jury remains out on whether this was from students misbehaving or being “picked on.”

The county was appointed to lead the study, and Sawyer was put in charge of that effort. There was nothing newsworthy in this meeting about meetings. The points that bear repeating came from commentary from Commissioner Al Whitesides.

He began by talking about a study that indicated the city and county schools were going to be losing students. With student populations already falling, both districts added an assistant superintendent position to their payrolls, and neither reduced the number of teachers in their employ.

“We need to look at what’s best for the students,” said Whitesides, “but I don’t see what’s best for the students when we keep adding people at the top. We look at Asheville City Schools, and they have one of the worst achievement gaps in the country, and we’re still funding it. But if you look at how much they spend per student, it’s $14 or $15,000. We could send them to a good private school for that.”

Per pupil spending in Asheville City Schools is $14,266. While tuition at the Asheville School and Christ School runs considerably higher, kids can attend Veritas Christian Academy for $13,525 or Fletcher Academy for $11,050 a year.

Whitesides next spoke about the need to be farsighted when considering the future of students. He said he appreciated the need to create and save jobs, but the need to make sure children are prepared for good employment, as well as responsible citizenship, was being ignored. “It’s all about the young people and the future of our community,” he said.

“I was at the school board meeting for the city last night, and they were busy talking about consolidating the middle schools and doing this and that, and I’ve seen what they’re planning. But nowhere have I seen them talk about the achievement gap.” He paused to slowly scan the room a couple times. “And that concerns me because we are losing too many students. When you look at the county, it’s the same thing with poor kids.

“I hope when we do this study, it’s not going to be political. I hope we will be serious about it and do the right thing for our kids. We’ve lost two generations in the city of kids who look like me because we haven’t taken care of them. It’s time for us as a community to look out for our kids—all our kids; we only take care of some—the privileged few. But the majority of our kids are not being taken care of.”

Whitesides was alluding to ACS’ School of Inquiry and Life Sciences in Asheville (SILSA). Ranked among the top high schools in the nation by US News and World Report, SILSA prepares students for AP exams in a rich learning environment, while students at Asheville High at large struggle to even show up.

“I just hope we do better than the commission I was on in the ’70s,” he said. A group from the city schools and a group from the county schools met for one year and talked about consolidation. We presented our report to the commissioners and the city council, and I threw out a plaque they gave me a few years ago. What was bad about that was that neither report ever saw the light of day. It was not discussed in either city council or county commissioners’ meetings.”