Archived Opinion

Trying times for school leaders in Haywood

op frHaywood County Schools has been a part of my life for 24 years now — as a journalist, the husband of a teacher, and the parent of three children who were each students for 13 years in the system — and never has there been a time when I have heard more criticism about its leadership. 

I sort of get it — you close a school, that’s what happens. Understandably, people get emotional. But the larger, more important issue for parents and taxpayers, though, is whether the school system is in good hands. Is there any validity to the voices critical of Superintendent Anne Garrett and the school board’s leadership through these trying times?

By my estimation, administrators and school board members were too worried about controlling the spin associated with the closing of Central Elementary School and the possibility of using the soon-to-be-vacated school as its new central office.

Despite what some think and what a lawsuit filed against the system claims, the closing of Central had nothing to do with the need for new administrative offices. The school administration will soon be forced to vacate its offices because the building is likely being turned into a senior housing project, so the timing of Central’s closing and the need for a new central office just happened to align. 

Still, a video of a January 2016 school board work session reveals that Garrett and others were more than a little concerned that the community might not see it that way, that they would think the school was being closed to make way for administrative offices.

“… we also don’t want it to be that we are taking Central just so we can have a location to move, because I think that would really give us a black eye,” Garrett told staff and school board members at that January work session.

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In reality, the need for a new central office didn’t beget the closure of Central. But Garrett was clearly worried the two issues would be connected in the public’s mind. She suggested keeping quiet about the possibility of moving central office to Central Elementary until the school closure blow-back blew over.

“We need to hold it for a while …. don’t tie the two together until maybe come springtime,” said Garrett.

“Then we can say, oh, by the way, we are going to go to Central …. that way we look good, and it looks like we are being very conservative because we own the building,” Garrett added at that January meeting.

Some might call it wise, even savvy to plan for the public reaction. The truth is that this fallout from Central’s closing was never going to be anything but loud and angry, regardless of what happens in the search for a central office. School officials were worrying so much about the public reaction to the closing, they made the mistake — by my estimation — of rushing the closure of Central. 

They announced it as a possibility in January, and in February they voted to close. Should the public have been involved in the study that went into making that decision? I would argue yes, and that the months of study internally that led to the decision to close Central should have been open. But they weren’t. The study was done mostly at the staff level and kept quiet. 

School officials disagree that the public should have been involved. School Board Attorney Pat Smathers, in response to the lawsuit, said closing a school is such a heart wrenching and emotionally wrought decision that it didn’t seem right to run it up the flagpole if it wasn’t a real possibility.

“You think about it, 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.

I would argue that Central Elementary belongs to the citizens of Haywood County, and that they should have been more involved in the decision, whether that school or perhaps another school closed. Even if the end result had been the same, the messy process of opening up the discussion would have shown more respect for taxpayers. Citizens and former school officials argued this exact point, but it fell on deaf ears.

And then there is the businessman side of me who wonders why this decision wasn’t made a few years ago. Declining student numbers and several schools that are well under capacity has been the reality for some time now in Haywood County. But all of a sudden, lightning-bolt like, a decision to shutter Central occurs.

The monetary savings from closing Central Elementary — and perhaps even another elementary school — are absolutely necessary for a system like Haywood that has had a decade of declining enrollment. The numbers don’t lie. 

But worrying a bit too much over controlling the public perception of the decision, a conscious decision not to involve the citizens and parents who own the schools, and not seeing the writing on the wall earlier could all be seen as leadership shortcomings.

Finally, school officials and the county seem to be doing some kind of dance around the decades-old agreement whereby the county is supposed to make good on paying for a new central office. What seems apparent from the words being used from both sides is that the relationship is more strained than it should be given that a former superintendent and two former school board members serve on the county board.

As I said earlier, these are trying times for public school leaders, both for superintendents and elected school boards. It seems this is especially true right now in Haywood County.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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