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Haywood School Board voices support for flood rebuilding decisions

Controversy over the handling of flood repairs by Haywood County Schools two years ago have been the subject of media attention over the past two weeks. This week, school board members were asked to weigh in and share their thoughts on how the flood repair were handled.

Over the course of flood repairs, the school system double-billed the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the state for more than $300,000 in flood repairs. Haywood County Schools are paying back the money. State flood officials consider the double-billing an honest mistake. In addition, the school system billed the state for improvements that went beyond the scope of flood repairs, according to FEMA assessments of the flood damage that spelled out what was eligible for assistance.

Haywood County School Board members supported the decisions that were made in the aftermath of the floods.

Chuck Francis, school board chairman

“I think where we are at today is miraculous. We made the best decisions we could with the information available. The state flood officials encouraged the school system to send in all the invoices as soon as possible and at the final audit we would settle any differences. They knew our problem was with cash flow.”

Mike Sorrells, Waynesville, owner of Sorrells Merchandise Company

“The first thing we were trying to do was recover and build back our facilities the best possible way we can. We knew we were going to have to improve on some stuff. When you are building back, that is the time to do it. There was never any intention of trying to slide something by. It was either under the assumption it would be flood damage or tied to it in some form or fashion.”

Sorrells said the flood representatives often gave contradictory information.

“One day this would be paid for and the next time we met, it would be a different story. Once we had started work we couldn’t stop and walk away from it. I think we had a lot of hard decisions that had to be made. Our goal and responsibility was to get our kids back in school and we did the best we could do with the information we had and following all the state and FEMA statutes and legal counsel.”

Jimmy Rogers, Clyde, owner of Haywood Tractor

“I think we did a real good job with that. Some of this stuff that our school system has supposedly done that is not flood related is flood related. There are some things that improvements were made on. You aren’t going to put something back in the same position. You are going to try to make it better.”

Walt Leatherwood, Canton, Blue Ridge Paper

“We had a job to get done and we couldn’t drag around for four or five years getting it done. I wanted Central Haywood back in Central Haywood. Every time we sat down to talk to these people from FEMA, we were always looking at someone different. To be honest, I don’t know how they know what they paid for and didn’t.

“We’ve always done what we thought we had to do to get the job done for the school facilities. I’m one of these guys that likes to see stuff done. We try to give kids the best place we can to get an education.”

Charlene Carswell, Waynesville, public health nurse

Carswell said she could not comment on the way flood repairs were handled. The majority of flood repair discussions, decisions and oversight occurred during committee meetings that did not involve the full school board, namely the building and grounds committee and the finance committee. Carswell is not on either of those committees.

Robin Black, Canton, Waynesville Housing Authority

“When you are working with $4 million in projects you are going to have some problems. You always have stuff you aren’t going to get reimbursed for. The bottom line is you try. They are supposed to know what they are willing to reimburse for. But if you don’t ask for it .... Why would you build a building back without air conditioning? There is some of it you have to use common sense with.

“I think it is a complicated process that anybody would have difficulty with. One person would say do it this way and another person would say do it that way. We have done nothing wrong. I think the state and FEMA will pay whatever they deem they feel they will pay. We have money in the bond set aside for flood repairs that the voters agreed to cover additional things.”

Johnny Woody, Bethel

“It was an overwhelming task. We were not going to sit back and let it take the best of us. It is a process that did not have steps one, two or three to go by. It was the first time the mountains have ever had FEMA come in on the white horse. Your main priority is to educate the children and you have to do that with facilities.”

Bruce Sutton of Crabtree could not be reached for comment. Stevie Kirkpatrick of Fines Creek did not return several phone calls seeking comment.

A school board election is being held Nov. 7 for four of the nine seats. Candidates were also asked to weigh in.

Keith Wyatt, Crabtree, retired principal, running against Bruce Sutton

“If you are involved in construction, it is easier to do lots of things while the building is torn up. Everyone in the construction business would rather build than remodel. I can understand where they were coming from but you have to have money to pay for it. You can’t spend money you don’t have and you have to follow the rules. They need to move on and get back to focusing on what’s the school system mission is. Be honest and put the facts on the table and say this is what we’ve done and this is what we owe.

Pat Taylor, Bethel, running against Johnny Woody

Taylor said she did not know enough about the situation to comment.

DB Arrington, Fines Creek, running against Stevie Kirkpatrick

Arrington said the school board could use stronger leadership and oversight.

“If they are not doing something exactly right I will call their hand on it.”

While some are critical of elected officials micromanaging the operations of the school board administration, Arrington said it is their responsibility.

“If you keep the top administrators from making mistakes, would you call that micromanaging?”

Johnny Jones, Waynesville, By-Pass Power and Equipment

“I don’t know the details behind those situations. The way I look at it is everyone in every position has to be accountable for their actions. Without the facts, I don’t really know.”

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