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From worst-case scenario to sinking reality: the evolution of closing a school

fr centralThe potential closing of Central Elementary School in Waynesville due to a massive, sudden budget shortfall for Haywood County Schools has unleashed a maelstrom of emotions in the community since the news broke two weeks ago.

While politicians swap barbs over who’s to blame for education funding cuts, and parents draw battle lines between charter school and public school camps, there’s one universal question being lobbed at Haywood County school leaders from all sides in the debate: Why weren’t we told sooner?

School officials are doomed to scrutiny no matter how they answer. 

If the $2.4 million budget shortfall was a surprise and the plan to close Central was a last-minute response, then the school board looks naïve for being blindsided by the impending budget crisis.

If closing Central has been in the works a long time but kept secret until the 11th hour, then the school board looks deceitful for not sharing it sooner.

In reality, there’s no right way to break it to a community of parents and teachers that their school might close, said Haywood School Board Chairman Chuck Francis.

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“We don’t want to close a school. It makes you sick to your stomach to see parents upset and kids crying because they are losing their school. We definitely didn’t want to see it happen,” Francis said.

Francis said the school system has known a budget shortfall was looming and had stretched out the use of its fund balance to cushion it as long as possible, but they didn’t know quite how bad it would be until it actually got here. 

“We were warned as a board that we were going to have a big budget crunch. We knew this day was coming,” Francis said. “But as a board member you are optimistic things will change and things will get better. You are sitting there trying to figure out how to make it work.”

Hope sprang eternal. They hoped state legislators would reverse funding cuts made to the classroom. They hoped the new Shining Rock charter school wouldn’t draw too many students away. They hoped their own demographic tracking and modeling would be wrong — that a drop in the birth rate and out-migration during the recession would not create a donut hole in the student body as feared.

But all three came true.

By the time they realized the magnitude of the shortfall, given the late passage of the state budget, it was already fall. 

Closing a school was always in the back of their minds, but considered a worst-case scenario, Francis said. The school board didn’t want to cause panic needlessly if it could be avoided.

“We are all thinking in the back of our heads we have to do something,” Francis said. “But it’s a tough decision.”

The school board thought about other alternatives — turning Central into a magnet school, or a STEM school, or even a charter school under the umbrella of Haywood County Schools itself.

“Would one of those be able to retain the kids that left to go to Shining Rock? That would be a guess,” Francis said. “The idea was talked about, but the problem was it would take money and time to get all that put together.”

The immediacy of the budget crisis made it clear that every option had to be on the table as the school board and central office staff looked for a solution to the $2.4 million shortfall.

“We can make it balance without closing the school, but the cuts are really deep,” Francis said.

So, the worst-case scenario became a reality.

“It sounds quick to folks, but as soon as the board saw and realized the decision needed to be made, we got it out there as soon as possible,” Francis said.

The possibility of closing Central has been discussed in school board finance committee meetings over the past three months. The meetings are open to the public and at the same time and place each month. Anyone who showed up would have theoretically heard the discussion, but no one ever comes — not even reporters, despite the school system sending a monthly email notice to local media whenever the finance committee convenes. 

Francis said the only silver lining is the community dialogue and heightened public engagement surrounding public education.

The bad news is that if enrollment declines in the traditional public school system continue, Central might not be the only school on the chopping block in coming years.

With a capacity for 8,000 students, but a student body of only 7,000, there’s not enough funding coming in to justify the overhead of 16 schools in Haywood County, Francis said. “The reality is we have to cut somewhere. We have more infrastructure than we need,” Francis said. “At the end of the day you are looking at one or even two schools that could be closing.”

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