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Ask Matt ... whether partisan School Boards govern successful schools

Q. What is the correlation between partisan school boards and the quality of the schools in those districts?

  Our state has 115 public school boards in 100 counties, including 15 “city” school districts. Asheville City Schools is the closest city school system to Hendersonville. There are 43 partisan school boards, which represents a little over a third of the total North Carolina public school systems. Looking at a map of the state, there is a large contiguous string of partisan school boards in the east while the rest of the partisan districts are spread across the piedmont and the mountains.

  After a cursory search, I found an online site named that used a combination of student performance (math and reading test scores), dropout rates, school funding and poverty rates. In its 2018 study, Henderson County schools ranked 11th out of 115 districts and Polk County Schools came in at No. 4. Of the top 10 systems, only two — Union County and Davie County — had partisan school board elections. The partisan Transylvania County school system was ranked No. 37. In the top half of schools ranked as best performing only 20 systems (35 percent) had partisan elections and all of the 15 worst performing school districts in the study were governed by partisan school boards.

   The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction publishes end-of-grade test scores for each school. Schools are also given “performance grades” and “report cards” but DPI does not aggregate the schools and rank entire systems. In fact, my contact at DPI cautioned the value of such rankings.

Q. Why didn’t the city of Asheville ask Hendersonville for water during the recent water crisis in the South Asheville and Mills River areas?

   For those unfamiliar with the crisis, on Dec. 24 the Asheville Mills River Water Treatment Plant on N.C.191 went down due to single-digit temperatures. In addition, a series of 27 major water leaks sprang up in the Asheville water distribution system. A “boil water” advisory was put into effect for some areas that was not lifted until noon Jan. 4.  There are approximately 1,600 Fletcher and Mills River customers who are served by Asheville water.

   We pitched the question about using Hendersonville water to Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell. After multiple requests, 26 days later we got a written response. Here is a summary:

  1. Taking water from the interconnection at the end of the Hendersonville water system would provide water of unknown quality and require flushing the line and testing for bacteria.
  2. Connecting to the Hendersonville system would reverse the flow of water in Asheville’s pipes and could cause a great deal of discolored water. Flushing those pipes would have been difficult with limited available water.
  3. Taking a limited quantity of water had more risks than benefits.

   Hendersonville water department officials did not take issue with this response and it should be noted that the day after the water plant went down the operators of both plants, which are less than a mile apart, were communicating. Hendersonville said they could provide Asheville one million gallons a day (MGD).

    My reaction to these responses is that David Melton, who heads Asheville’s water system, was in crisis mode for a week and was doing the best with what he had to keep his fingers in the dike. His system averages 22 MGD and Hendersonville’s one MGD might not be worth the effort but Asheville soon had a boil water advisory for 38,000 customers so bacteria was already a concern. Discolored tap water (iron and manganese deposits) is unsightly but not harmful to drink in small quantities. I suspect that most residents would prefer some rusty colored water that could fill a toilet bowl over no water at all.

  One item absent in Asheville’s belated statement was the safety associated with flushing lines along highways during sub-freezing temperatures. But this raises the question of available work crews. Asheville and Hendersonville are both members of NCwaterWARN, a network of utilities organized for mutual response and recovery after disasters, however Asheville never made the call to get help fixing its line breaks. Yet there have been past cases of assistance. In 1993 and again in 1998, before the infamous “water wars” of the early 2000s, Asheville purchased water from Hendersonville to help get through extended droughts.  

   One important item that was not widely discussed during the water crisis was that fire hydrants in the north end of Henderson County and beyond were totally dry for about a week. Should there have been a major fire in the Riverstone subdivision or at Sierra Nevada, for example, water from neighboring fire departments would have had to be trucked in.

   Asheville’s City Council is assembling an independent review committee to look at the events surrounding the Christmas Eve water outage and make recommendations. It will be interesting to see if the name Hendersonville appears anywhere in the findings.

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