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Lawsuit filed over closure of Central Elementary

fr melroseA lawsuit was filed this week against the Haywood County School Board alleges ulterior motives were at play for closing Central Elementary School and that school officials engaged in a concerted, secretive effort to keep the impending closure of the school off the public’s radar, ultimately violating state statutes.

“The primary goal is exposure,” said Mark Melrose, a Waynesville attorney whose daughter goes to Central and who filed the lawsuit. “This decision came out of left field for the parents and students of Central Elementary School. We had no inkling this was coming. It just smelled funny to me, and the primary purpose of this lawsuit is to open the doors and windows and bring the sunlight in.”

The lawsuit alleges that the school board was plotting to close Central for some time, but intentionally kept the public in the dark, resulting in violations of the Open Meetings Law and the statutory process for closing a school.

Melrose obtained video recordings of a school board committee meeting the week before they publicly announced that Central was slated for closure. Melrose said the recording reveals a “shell game” to keep the issue under wraps until the 11th hour.

“It seems to me the school board was afraid to let the public in as a stakeholder in the decision-making process,” Melrose said. “Their message to the public is ‘You have no good ideas.’ If they wanted our input, they would have involved us in the process.”

Melrose said as an attorney, he felt obligated to do his part to give a voice to the students and parents at Central who were shut out.

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“The number one lesson is transparency is not a bad thing. The public is not the enemy,” Melrose said.

Central was targeted for consolidation, with its 230 students sent to other elementary schools, as a cost-cutting measure, according to school officials. However, Melrose said behind-the-scenes conversations from the recorded school board committee meeting show that there was an ulterior motive at play.

The school system administration will likely be kicked out of their central office location in the coming year to make way for an affordable housing complex. The school system intended all along to convert Central Elementary into its new central office location, Melrose said, based on revelations in the recording.

Melrose said the one thing that was strikingly absent from the discussions on the recording was student welfare, which the school board is supposed to take into account as part of the statutory decision making process.

Five seats on the school board are up for election this year. The candidate sign-up period is in July. Melrose said he isn’t running, but hopes that some “engaged, independent thinkers” who won’t simply rubber-stamp what school administrators hand them will run.

“They need people on there whose primary focus is on the children and who have some courage,” Melrose said.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday afternoon, just before The Smoky Mountain News’ press deadline. More thorough coverage of the lawsuit and the findings of Melrose’s probe into what went on behind the behind-the-scenes during the school board’s decision making process will appear in next week’s edition as The Smoky Mountain News continues to follow the story.

Haywood County School Board Attorney Pat Smathers was unable to offer a comment on the lawsuit before press time, having just obtained a copy of it himself. 

Smathers said he was confident, however, that the school system had followed the statutory requirements for closing a school and that there were no grounds for a judge to grant an injunction halting Central’s closure.

“We will respond as appropriate, but my advice to the school board will be to continue on with the plans,” Smathers said.

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