The possible school closure in this small mountain town is a self-fulfilling prophecy of state Republican policies that have undermined traditional public school systems in recent years, according to some.
“The possibility of this school closing isn’t an accident. It is a choice. The people in Raleigh have made a choice to underfund education,” said Dan Kowal, a teacher in Macon County. “If this can happen here, it can happen anywhere.”
The issue has been closely followed throughout the region, drawing several speakers from other counties to sound the alarm at a public hearing last week on Central’s fate.
“It is part of the larger story of what is happening to public education in North Carolina,” said John deVille, a teacher in Macon County.
As public school funding has been funneled to charter schools, online schools and private schools through vouchers, public schools have been squeezed, putting them on the very trajectory now playing out in Haywood, they said.
“It is the state politicians who have been cutting the budget and then leave it up to y’all to be the face of those ugly cuts,” Kowal said.
Kowal said it was “immoral” of state Republican lawmakers to pass out tax cuts for the wealthy and special interests while schools are struggling.
“They are stealing from our children and taking money from our schools to give tax cuts to people who are already wildly successful. They are stealing from our children to give money to their campaign contributions,” Kowal said. “The only way to change this is for us to work together.”
Jane Hipps, a Waynesville Democrat and retired educator running for the N.C. Senate, said a change is needed in Raleigh to save public schools.
“I think we are being looked at across the state at how are we going to handle this. Are we going to fold in and let them make us fold this school?” Hipps asked. “Let’s show the folks in Raleigh we have some backbone and we can keep our schools open.”
Jan Blount, another speaker who touched on the larger politics at play behind Central’s closing, said the so-called school choice movement is distorted.
“Our state legislators have decided to give us school choice. That sounds great to parents — we get school choice,” Blount said.
But when the finite pool of education dollars is eroded by subsidies for private schools, it limits choice on the other end.
“So all those people who get to take their kids to private school, that’s hunky dory. But what about your choice?
“Which school do you want to go to?” Blount asked, turning to a table of students beside the microphone.
“Central!” they shouted.
DeVille said that charter schools like the new Shining Rock Classical Academy might provide a choice for some — but not to all.
“There’s an unspoken class barrier to going to Shining Rock. We are creating a caste system in North Carolina with our charter schools,” deVille said.
Meanwhile, public schools attended by the vast majority of students suffer, he said.
A couple of speakers made a trip from neighboring counties simply to offer their condolences.
“I felt like I had to come out here and show support,” said Pam Baldwin, superintendent of Asheville City Schools. “Each and every one of you and these families and these students are going to be in my prayers.”
Baldwin said that Haywood isn’t alone in the tough decision it faces.
“I’ve sat where y’all have sat. Our county might be looking at the same thing in the future if things continue in the way that they are,” Baldwin said. “I am seeing it get chipped away slowly and steadily by the decisions being made at the state level and those decisions at the state level come back to haunt these guys.”
Many parents shared that sentiment.
“I am concerned the consideration of closing down Central is an indication that education is heading in the wrong direction,” said Anna Catherine Super, a parent at Central.
A career public school educator from Black Mountain urged Haywood school leaders to keep fighting.
“I believe that a school is the heart and soul of a community. Everything in a community rotates like a wheel around what happens in a school. Closing this school is going to break a terribly important hub,” said Norm Bossert, the principal at Black Mountain Elementary.
Public schools have a spirit that goes beyond the education of children.
“It was relationships, the people we knew, the people we embraced, the troubles they had, the triumphs they share,” Bossert said.
There’s nothing worth fighting as hard for.
“If you lock arms and walk together and take the fight to Raleigh that needs to happen, then by God you can save this school because this community lives in its children, and their children, and their children,” he said.