If Central Elementary closes, a private school might want it
Haywood School leaders have avoided talking about what would become of the 1950s-era school building that houses Central Elementary if it closes, saying it would be premature until a final decision is made.
However, the private school Haywood Christian Academy has expressed preliminary interest in possibly buying or leasing Central if it ends up closing. Haywood Christian has 115 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. It has two campuses — one for elementary and one for middle and high school — about a mile apart in Clyde.
“We are looking at trying to combine those two campuses,” said Thom Morgan, who serves on the board of Haywood Christian Academy. “Rather than spend a lot of money trying to add on to our current school we would prefer to spend our money on Central Elementary.”
Haywood Schools and Haywood Christian Academy have an amicable and even friendly relationship. Unlike charter schools — which compete more directly with public schools both for students and dollars — private Christian schools aren’t directly dipping into the public education well, Morgan said.
“As a faith-based private school, we are absolutely not in competition with any other school,” Morgan said.
Morgan learned about the possible closure of Central Elementary School through the media in early January like everyone else. While he’s certainly not rooting for it to close, he wanted to let the school system know there was a potential taker out there for Central’s building if that’s the way things end up going.
“I wanted to establish a line of communication and put them on notice we have a strong interest if they make the decision to close the school,” said Morgan, who is also the president and owner of Mountain Energy.
Like so many in Waynesville, Central was once a big part of Morgan’s life. Both his daughters went to school there. Now, however, he has three grandchildren at Haywood Christian.
Morgan said Haywood Christian Academy could offer a silver lining to an otherwise unfortunate situation, since no one wants to see a vacant, boarded-up building in the middle of a downtown Waynesville neighborhood. It could also be a win-win for Haywood Christian Academy.
“If there is an opportunity to help ourselves and help the county, we would like to explore that opportunity,” Morgan said.
Morgan called Haywood Christian Academy “one of the best-kept secrets in Haywood County.”
While most parents choose it for the faith-based education, some families are simply attracted to its academic caliber and smaller class setting. Haywood Christian had been growing steadily since it opened in 2008, with a 15 percent increase from 2013 to 2015.
But enrollment dipped this year with the loss of about 15 students, a drop that coincides with the opening of the new Shining Rock Classical Academy charter school.
Word that a third party was potentially interested in Central Elementary was first revealed three weeks ago when the school system issued a feasibility study on closing the school.
“The Board of Education has not made any decisions about the use of the facility,” the report stated, but added that “A third party has inquired about acquiring Central Elementary School.”
That prompted rumors and speculation about who the third party might be, including whether it was the new Shining Rock Classical Academy charter school, which doesn’t yet have a campus of its own but is hoping to set up modular units on leased land by next school year.
At a public hearing on Central’s fate, a speaker at the microphone brought up the reference to an unnamed third party interested in the building, prompting a chorus of “Who is it? Is it Shining Rock?” from the audience.
Haywood School Superintendent Anne Garrett was obligated to disclose who it was since Morgan had emailed her, and emails qualify as a public record.
“The reason for my email is to express an interest that Haywood Christian Academy would have in a purchase or lease or whatever options are available for the Central Elementary facility if it does indeed close,” Morgan had written in an email to Garrett on January 13.
Haywood County School Board Chairman Chuck Francis said what to do with Central Elementary if it closes isn’t a factor in the decision-making process.
The proposal to close Central is being driven by a $2.4 million budget shortfall facing the school system, brought on by reduced state funding and a declining student population.
The school system currently has more buildings than it needs to house its elementary student body. Closing Central and absorbing those students into other elementary schools would net about $500,000 in savings a year on overhead.
It wouldn’t be the first time a school has closed in Haywood County. Schools deemed either too old, too small, or too far out in the county have been closed and consolidated over the years.
The vacated school buildings often have a community legacy, and have been turned into community centers, from the Fines Creek Community Center in the rural hinterlands to the Pigeon Community Center, once an all-black school in Waynesville, to the Folkmoot Friendship Center, formerly Hazelwood Elementary and now a home base for the summer international Folkmoot festival and its suite of year-round cultural arts programming.
Some have questioned whether Central is being eyed as a new home for central office administration.
The school’s central office is currently housed in a portion of the old Haywood County hospital, but its days there are numbered. Haywood County is trying to off-load the old hospital to a development firm that would turn it into affordable housing apartments.
But Francis said Central Elementary would be less than ideal for a new central office and that’s in no way an ulterior motive for closing the school.
Besides, Francis said the ball would be in the county commissioners’ court to relocate the central office.
“The county commissioners would be responsible for finding us a home if they sell the old hospital,” Francis said.
That’s because of an agreement going back a few decades involving a building swap between the school system and the county. The school system gave the county its former central office building, located behind the historic courthouse.
An agreement signed at the time stipulated the county would provide the school system with another central office location in exchange, which up until now has been in the old hospital. Francis believes that agreement would still apply.
“If they move us, they are responsible for finding us a home,” Francis said. “That is nothing we are going to have to worry with.”
Central Elementary decision countdown
A vote on the fate of Central Elementary School has been delayed until next week.
The Haywood County School Board was expected to make a decision Monday (Feb. 8) but its meeting was canceled due to winter weather. It has been rescheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16, at the Education Center in Clyde.
Parents, students and supporters of Central Elementary School were going to hold a rally and press conference at 6 p.m. prior to the school board meeting, and have now moved it to next Tuesday as well.
The potential closure of Central Elementary to help plug a $2.4 million budget shortfall facing the school system has become a rallying cry for cuts to public education at the state level, with advocacy groups like Progress NC Action planning to attend the rally all the way from Raleigh.