Haywood Schools at a crossroads

Parents feel railroaded in Central Elementary closure

fr parentsA study conducted by Haywood County Schools justifying the closure of Central Elementary School was a sham and failed to meet state requirements for a school closure, two speakers argued before the Haywood County School Board last week.

“This study is a crock. If you really look at what the law requires you have failed on many counts,” said Joe Moore, a parent whose two children — now in high school — both attended Central Elementary. 

Moore also believes the school board made up its mind to close Central long before it voted to conduct a study in January.

“It is a report that was made up after the fact,” Moore said.

Mark Melrose, a Central parent, agreed.

“You really didn’t care what the study said. You just wanted to say you played by the rules,” Melrose said.

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School boards have broad latitude to close and consolidate schools, but state law outlines steps to be followed, including the criteria for a “thorough study.” But the five-page study conducted by Haywood school officials glossed over many of the criteria and lacked substance, Moore and Melrose said.

“If you had turned this in as a paper, every teacher in Haywood County would have failed you and told you the first part of taking a test is to read the directions,” Melrose said.

One of the most glaring omissions in Melrose’s opinion was the welfare of students. State statute says the study must “have in mind primarily the welfare of the students.” But the study doesn’t address the welfare of students at all.

Melrose also took the school board to task for not leveling with the public sooner that a massive budget shortfall loomed and a plan to close Central were in the works. The first the public learned of the $2.4 million shortfall and the plan to close Central was in January — just five weeks before the final vote.

Telling people sooner would have had its drawbacks, too, given the disruption and distraction it’s invariably causing for students, parents and teachers. 

Melrose delivered a fiery speech comparing the school board to the Titanic. The school board ignored warning signs, failed to take corrective action when trouble signs were ahead and kept the passengers in the dark, Melrose said.

“One captain asks the others ‘Shouldn’t we call to shore and ask the people there for help?’ ‘No,’ they answered. ‘We’ll decide how to steer this ship. If we hit something, we’ll just tell them when we start sinking,’” Melrose said. “’We’ll make it look like we tried to slow down. We will defend ourselves by pretending we really studied this problem.’”

Speakers during the public comment period were supposed to limit remarks to three minutes. Melrose wasn’t done when three minutes were up, however. He asked for more time to finish but was told “no.”

“Then I will just continue,” Melrose said.

School board chairman Chuck Francis tried to get him to stop, even rapping the gavel repeatedly. But Melrose forged on.

School board attorney Pat Smathers also tried to intervene. Melrose, who is a skilled trial attorney, ignored Smathers and kept right on reading his speech.

“Mr. Chairman, I would advise you to rule Mr. Melrose out of order,” Smathers said to no avail. Smathers finally nodded to two deputies who were stationed by the door to take Melrose out.

“If you are going to make me leave, I have a little bit more to say,” Melrose said, continuing to deliver his speech even as deputies gently hooked his elbows and walked him backwards out the door.

Melrose’s high school daughter was up next on the public speaker’s list, and began reading where her father left off — he’d left his speech behind on the podium.

School board members didn’t address Melrose’s comments directly, but they did respond to general criticism from parents that Central is being closed in haste without vetting other solutions.

“I believe our board has done a tremendous job of looking at all solutions other than closing Central Elementary School, and they simply do not exist,” Chuck Francis said.

“I assure you that we have not taken this lightly. We’ve looked at alternatives to cut, we’ve looked at other sources of funding,” School board member Jim Francis, chair of the finance committee, added. 

Jim Francis explained the school system has been cutting its budget for seven years now. It gets harder each passing year to find yet more cuts, but still the cuts keep coming. The school system has cut 127 positions since 2008.

“That’s a huge number of jobs that have been lost in Haywood County,” Jim Francis said.

Until now, the school system milked a reserve of savings to cushion the severity of cuts. 

“We used it very conservatively over a long period of time to keep jobs in Haywood County. We wanted our students to have lower class size and no combination classes and multiple course offerings,” Chuck Francis said.

But that’s now all used up, and the final reckoning has arrived. School board members are now being upfront that Central may not be the only school that has to close in coming years.

Melrose questioned why the school board isn’t making an ask to the Haywood County commissioners for more funding. 

“With the stroke of a pen, if this school board would only have the courage to ask, the county can delay the new animal shelter to take care of our children,” said Ally Melrose, reading from her father’s speech.

Ally said while she loves her animals, she loves her sister who goes to Central more.

Melrose is weighing whether to file a lawsuit alleging the school system didn’t follow the state statute in conducting the study. For example, the school system was supposed to consider “inconvenience or hardship” on students, but all the report said about that was “there should be no great inconvenience or hardship” due to the proximity of two other elementary schools nearby.

The study was also supposed to consider impacts of school closure on diversity, but only one line addressed this with an unexplained statement that closing Central “would not significantly impact” diversity. Melrose pointed out that Central has the most diverse student body of any elementary school in the county.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 24/02/2016

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