Haywood Schools dispute allegations surrounding Central Elementary
Haywood County school leaders went on record this week patently disputing the allegations in a lawsuit filed last week questioning the motives for closing Central Elementary School.
The lawsuit alleges that Central Elementary was not closed due to budget shortfalls but that the school system had the ulterior motive of wanting to relocate its central offices there.
“This allegation that it was closed for the purpose of moving central office is just absolutely not true,” said School Board Attorney Pat Smathers.
It’s rare for defendants of a lawsuit to speak out for fear their comments could come back to haunt them as the suit progresses.
Smathers not only agreed to a free-flowing interview with reporters about the suit that lasted upwards of an hour, but also publicly addressed the allegations during a school board meeting Monday night. Smathers said it was “necessary to publicly refute certain allegations” in order to protect the integrity of the school board and school officials that had been called into question by the suit.
Smathers said it is a fact that the school system was facing a $2.4 million budget shortfall. It was also a fact that the student body across Haywood County Schools had dropped by 800 students over the past decade.
“I don’t think there is anyone who would look at the declining enrollment over the past several years and not think there’s a possibility a school might have to be closed,” Smathers said. “Anyone who looks at that would say ‘How can you maintain 16 schools?’”
The lawsuit criticizes the school system for secretly plotting to close Central. Smathers called it planning, but otherwise admitted that those discussions had indeed been going on.
“Yes there have been talks about ‘Hey, if the enrollment continues to decline, we may have to close a school,’” Smathers said. “Administration has been considering ‘What schools do we close if need be, due to funding?’”
For the record, Central Elementary wasn’t the only one school leaders have talked about. Bethel Middle School, North Canton Elementary or Meadowbrook Elementary have also been batted around when discussions of closing a school came up, Smathers said.
Smathers said school leaders wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t look into the future and contemplate the options under different scenarios.
“The discussion of the possibility is always on the table,” Smathers said. “There is always planning and there are always scenarios.”
Meanwhile, it’s true that the school system has spent the past few years exploring new locations for its central office.
The central office currently occupies a small portion of the old Haywood County hospital, but the vast majority of the hulking four-story building is vacant. The county has been trying to unload it for six years, prompting the school system to analyze other possible locations.
Over the past few years, the pros and cons of 28 sites have been analyzed, and Central Elementary was among them, Smathers admitted.
“One of the sites was Central Elementary in the event it had to close due to declining enrollment,” Smathers said. “I have to be candid. If Central closed, it would be on the table.”
But that doesn’t mean that the quest for a new central office location was the catalyst for the closure of Central Elementary.
Smathers said it was important to note that Haywood County Schools aren’t gunning for a new central office location. The only reason they would leave their current building is if they get run out.
“As of today the board has not been asked to vacate this facility,” Smathers said.
The county hadn’t had any takers for the old hospital until recently. In January, however, the county announced a proposal to sell the building to a development firm that would turn it into an affordable senior housing apartment complex.
It was the worst possible timing for the school system. January was also when the school system went public with the proposal to close Central Elementary.
“It is just a coincidence,” Smathers said. “A coincidence can still look bad.”
The lawsuit criticizes the school system for not telling the community sooner that it was possibility, however. Smathers said closing a school is such a heartwrenching and emotionally wrought decision that it didn’t seem right to run it up the flag pole if it wasn’t a real possibility.
“You think about, you can informally discuss it, but you don’t put something out formally that you are going to close a school unless it is something you have really got to do,” Smathers said.
Speaking of coincidences, a schoolwide IT upgrade conducted at Central Elementary over spring break had led to rumors that the school system must be setting the stage for central office to occupy it.
However, there’s actually a logical explanation that involves $300,000 in grant funding for IT upgrades at every school in county. The contract for the grant-funded work had been signed last May. The school system contacted the grant funders this winter and told them they no longer need Central to be included as part of the project, but it would have cost the school system more to redo the contract than to proceed with Central included.