Haywood Schools at a crossroads

Budget cuts to shutter Central Elementary School: Haywood School board says it was the only option

fr centralParents, students and teachers of Central Elementary School in Waynesville made a desperate and impassioned final stand to save their beloved school last week, but to no avail.

The Haywood County School Board pressed ahead with a vote to close the school, ultimately sacrificing Central to spare the rest of the school system from more painful budget cuts. 

“Central means so much to so many of us. Please think hard before you destroy something so wonderful,” Tiffany Kyle, a Central parent, begged the school board before it voted. 

Nearly 100 people flooded the school board meeting to witness the vote, hoping against all odds that somehow the show of solidarity would undo the epithet they knew deep down had already been written for Central.

The board’s regular meeting room was undersized to handle such a crowd. Children took to the floor, while parents lined the walls and spilled down the hallway, straining to hear the words that floated out the door.

The crowd oscillated between anger and sadness, frustration and defeat, rage and hopelessness. Many sobbed. Children buried their faces in their moms’ arms.  Teachers battled to keep their own tears silent. 

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“If Central didn’t inspire this love from its community, we wouldn’t be here fighting for it,” said Josh Pratt, the father of two children at Central.

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Cries of “No! Please! Don’t do it!” were shouted from the audience as the school board solemnly marched ahead with the vote to shutter Central.

“There have been lots of sleepless nights by all these board members up here,” school board member Jim Francis said. “I don’t want any school in this county to close. I understand the connection you have to your school. But we are elected to make difficult and heart-wrenching decisions even though we don’t want to make them.”

School board chairman Chuck Francis got choked up as he told the crowd his own grandson goes to Central.

“I have a personal interest in Central Elementary School, too,” Francis said. “As a board we care deeply for the school, our teachers, students, parents and the community, and it saddens me to have this recommendation on the floor.”

Two of the nine school board members voted not to close Central — Jimmy Rogers and Rhonda Schandevel. Schandevel is running for the state legislature on a Democratic platform of strengthening education.


Last-ditch plea

Only a few Central parents spoke during the comment period at the school board meeting, Most had made their points during a dedicated public hearing three weeks prior.

Those who spoke up again last week asked the board to hold off a little longer.

“I realize money is tight. But we need more time. Let’s come together and try to figure out a solution to this,” said Chris Williamson, the president of Central’s PTA. “Give us a year. Give us a chance to find the money.”

But school board members said it would be a dangerous gamble.

 “I want everybody in the room to understand the place we are in. If we were to wait a year, if something doesn’t change, we are a year down the road and the budget cuts have fallen even deeper,” said school board member Bobby Rogers. “We can’t keep kicking the can down the road.”

The school system is facing a $2.4 million budget shortfall next year. Closing Central would save $500,000 a year — lessening the severity of the sweeping cuts that must be made to close the gap.

“We have been elected to make the best decisions we can for the whole school system,” Bobby Rogers said.

Shortfall aside, the county simply has more school buildings than it really needs. There are nine elementary schools, and none are close to capacity, especially given a 10 percent drop in the student population across the school system over the past several years.

Keeping Central open — by plowing money into building overhead when it could go toward classroom education — would be irresponsible, school board members have alluded.

“Even if additional funding were possible, we would have to close a school due simply to decreased enrollment,” Chuck Francis said.

That’s a moot point, however, because “the money’s not there,” he said.

But to parents, Central is more than an overhead line item. It is a community.

“Students from the whole socio-economic spectrum learn from the dedicated teachers and from and with one another. Public schools can prepare all these students for the future while enriching their lives today,” said Anna Catherine Super, a Central mom.

Students used to Central’s small, close-knit environment will be lost at larger schools — both socially and academically — parents said.

“We know our children and we want to keep our children at our school,” Williamson said. “Transferring our kids to other schools would cause them to have many disadvantages.”


Emotionally charged reactions

Raw emotions got the best of some in the audience at the school board meeting.

One parent who’s a lawyer in town was physically removed from the meeting by deputies for refusing to quit talking when his three-minute public comment window was up. He continued to deliver his prepared speech over the loud rapping of a gavel, growing louder still to compete with calls from the school board attorney that he stand down, and still not letting up even as deputies pulled him backward out the door of room.

Another dad who stormed out amid the board’s discussion audibly called the school board “a bunch of dumb mother-f——s.” A mom fled the meeting in a rage as the vote was being held, pulling a teary child with her by the hand. 

One parent repeatedly told the school board in a raised voice “Y’all need to move! Y’all need to move!” Given the local family lineage of school board members — and the importance of kinship, heritage and sense of place in mountain culture — the suggestion they should be banished and cast out from the county was perhaps the highest insult all night.

One of the more unusual audience interruptions came just as the school board was about to vote, when an older bearded man in a knitted Rastafarian beret elbowed his way to the front of the crowd in the hall and began hollering from the doorway.

“I’ll tell you how to get the funds you need,” the man shouted. “All you got to do is ask for it.”

“We have a motion on the floor,” Chuck Francis said, banging the gavel, trying to redirect attention from the man at the back of the room to the board table. But the man carried on insistently about a scheme to unlock federal money.

“Did Ford Motor not go to Washington and hold out a tin cup? Are you too ashamed to stand up for the children with a tin cup?” he shouted.

“Please sir,” Francis said, rapping the gavel again. “Will you hold it down please?”

The man eventually melted back into the crowded hallway, partly due to deputies stationed at the entrance of the room exerting their presence.

Most cries of protest emanating from the ranks of the audience as the board drew closer to a vote weren’t inherently mean-spirited, however, but rather born out of anguish and desperation.

“Give us more time, please! We need more time,” several parents cried.

School board member Jimmy Rogers said he personally agreed that the community hadn’t had ample warning or time to process the school closure. 

“My personal preference is we delay this. I would really love to see us postpone this for a month,” Jimmy Rogers said.

School board member Peewee Kirkpatrick agreed, too.

“Everything I have heard is give us more time. I have even heard a month. I personally would like to see another month,” Kirkpatrick said.

That prompted another round of outcry from the audience, however. They wanted a whole year delay, not just a month.

“Give us a year,” they cried.

School board members attempted to talk about the idea of delaying the vote another month but kept getting interrupted by comments from the audience.

School board member Bobby Rogers asked what would be gained by waiting a month.

“Is there anything that could make a difference? Or are we going to be right back in this same place and the emotions have gotten even higher and we are that much closer to the next school year?” Bobby Rogers said.

Chairman Chuck Francis said plans to reassign students to other elementary schools had to get underway as soon as possible, and the schools absorbing Central students also need to begin making plans to open up more classrooms.

“If things do change, we could always open it back up,” Chuck Francis said. 

Before the board voted, School board member Jim Francis swiveled his chair to address parents and teachers.

“This is the toughest decision any of us have had to make,” Jim Francis said, in a heart-to-heart with the audience. “But there is no other way we can do this. We can’t postpone it down the road because the impact to our schools could be even greater if we don’t do something now.”

After the meeting, School board member Larry Henson said the decision was a last resort and not taken lightly.

“We just hope enrollment doesn’t keep going down to where we have to do another one,” Henson said.



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Last modified on Wednesday, 24/02/2016

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