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Wednesday, 13 January 2016 15:25

Closing Central Elementary emotional for school officials

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fr central2Haywood County School Board members were grave and sober Monday night as they confronted the ominous prospect of closing down one of the county’s nine public elementary schools.

When school officials unveiled a proposal this week to close Central Elementary School in Waynesville, they universally described the decision as the most difficult one they’ve ever made. 

“Some decisions are easy to make and some are not easy to make. This next decision is not easy to make,” said School Board Member Jim Francis, who chairs the finance committee. “It is with a very heavy heart the finance committee brings a recommendation to authorize a study to close Central Elementary School.”

Haywood County Schools are facing a $2.4 million budget shortfall next school year. The lion’s share of the shortfall — $1.5 million of it — is funding siphoned away from Haywood County Schools by charter schools.  

School board members squarely laid the blame at the feet of political leadership in Raleigh that has approved systematic cuts to education in recent years and paved the way for charter schools, which have taken a sizeable bite out of funding for the traditional public school system.

“These cuts reflect the fundamentally flawed decision making process in Raleigh and are removed from the will of this community,” said School Board Member Rhonda Schandevel, who is running for the N.C. House of Representatives.

During the school board meeting Monday night, board members took turns talking about how much they regret having to consider something as drastic as closing a school, but said their hand is being forced by the policy decisions of state legislators.

“The legislators in Raleigh need to realize every decision they make regarding public schools affects children and they are our future,” School Board Member Jimmy Rogers said.

“The citizens of this county need to understand what is going on. I hope the news media captures the essence of what is going on tonight and our citizens begin to engage our representatives,” Rogers continued. “It is my prayer that this community will hear this news and take action and get involved with the decision-makers and stand up for our children.”

School board members specifically blamed Shining Rock Classical Academy, a new charter school that opened in Haywood County in August, as the driving factor behind the proposal to close Central. It is the first charter school to open in Haywood County.

While a couple dozen students from Haywood County had been attending charter schools in neighboring counties already, the opening of Shining Rock led to a sudden and arresting decline in enrollment in one fell swoop — and in turn, a sizeable cut in funding that must now be contended with, school officials explained.

Shining Rock has roughly 230 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. Of those, between 150 and 175 came out of the Haywood County school system. Another 18 students previously enrolled in Haywood County Schools joined online virtual charter schools that opened this year.

In all, enrollment between last school year and this year fell by 220 students. 

State and county funding for the school system is predicated on student enrollment. Fewer students mean fewer dollars — dollars that the school system was forced to turn over to charter schools — and the school system must adjust accordingly to that reality, school board members said.

“We’ve endured a drastic reduction in enrollment,” School Board Member Jim Francis said.

School board members said state policy favoring charter schools have been punative to the traditional public school system.

“Education has taken a beating,” School Board Member Lynn Milner said. “When you are in critical mode you have to take drastic measures. We don’t want to make cuts. We’d like to go on like we have been, but we don’t have the fund balance to fall back on like we have in the past.”

Budget cuts are nothing new for the school system. Cuts to education funding by the state and gradual enrollment declines in the Haywood school system — even before the advent of the new charter school — have prompted incremental budget cuts year after year.

The school system has 130 fewer employees now than it did seven years ago and has cut its budget by several million dollars.

The low hanging fruit has long since been cut, however, leaving no cushion to absorb the sudden $1.5 million bite of the budget by charter schools. 

Meanwhile, the school system has also burned through its fund balance. Savings built up and squirrelled away over the years have thus far softened the blow of budget shortfalls, School Superintendent Anne Garrett said.

The school system has spent $3.5 million of its fund balance over the past three years — on top of budget cuts — to help make ends meet. Now there is no more left.

“That was our wake up call,” Garrett said.

 

A timeline for closing Central Elementary School

The following charts the major steps leading up to a final decision on whether to close Central Elementary School in Waynesville, and key decisions that would have to be made in the wake of a vote to close the school.

• Fall 2015: School officials began to seriously analyze the idea of closing Central Elementary in response to a sudden, crippling funding drain caused by a new charter school that opened in the county in August, which exacerbated the ongoing strain of state budget cuts. The proposal remains a well-kept secret among upper level administration and school board members during the quiet study phase.

• Monday, Jan. 11: The Haywood County School Board formally votes to study the idea of closing Central Elementary. It’s the first time anyone outside the inner circle of school administration learns that closing Central Elementary is being seriously contemplated.

• Tuesday, Jan. 12: News that Central Elementary would likely close was shared for the first time with teachers and school staff before school started in the morning. A letter to parents was sent home with students informing them of the possibility their child’s school could be closing this year.

• Thursday, Jan. 21: The school system’s self-imposed deadline to wrap up its feasibility study on closing Central Elementary and make it publicly available. It will be distributed to parents directly, posted online and publicized in local media.

• Tuesday, Jan. 26: A public input meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in the Central Elementary cafeteria on the proposal to close the school. Inclement weather date is Jan. 27.

• Monday, Feb. 8: The school board will make a final decision on whether to close Central Elementary, which would be effective at the end of the current school year.

• February: If closing Central is approved, the school system would map out new school assignments for current Central students. Central students will be divided between Hazelwood and Junaluska elementary schools. New school district lines will be drawn, neighborhood by neighborhood, to determine which school students are routed to. No other elementary school district lines will be redrawn in the county.

• March/April: The school system will be in the throes of the critical spring planning process. Budgets for the coming school year will be finalized during this time, including more than $2 million in additional budget cuts that must be made over and above the savings from closing Central. Teaching positions are allocated among the schools — how many teachers per grade for each school — based on projected enrollment estimates for each school.

• May: If closure is approved, this is when teachers from Central Elementary will learn whether they will be able to move into new jobs at other schools or be laid off. Hazelwood and Junaluska — where most Central students would be sent — will have to add staff to accommodate the enrollment growth, creating new positions staff from Central can move into. In addition, several dozen positions come open every year due to natural turnover and retirements. Whether there are enough new positions or job openings at other schools to absorb the 39 staff currently at Central — or whether layoffs will be necessary — will be figured out this month.

• June: If the proposal is adopted, the last day of school before summer break will be Central Elementary’s last day of school for the foreseeable future. There are no hard plans for what to do with the building, at least not that are being shared publicly by the school system. If the school system hangs on to the old school building, should public school population in the county increases in the future, it’s always possible the elementary school could be pressed back into service one day.

• Aug. 20, 2016: If the proposal is adopted, former Central Elementary students will start their first day of the school year at a different school.

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