School closing lawsuit should move forward
I hope the lawsuit by Mark Melrose against the Haywood County School System has its day in court, and was gratified last week when a judge did not stop it from proceeding.
Melrose — whose daughter was a student at Central Elementary School — has sued the school system over its decision to close the school. Judge Joe Crosswhite immediately snuffed the effort by Melrose to keep the school open through an injunction, but at this point the remainder of the suit is going forward.
“ … we’ll be able to engage in discovery to find out other details in this case, and eventually we’ll be able to present to the court the issue concerning the Open Meetings Law, the violation of board policy and whether they did the study correctly or not,” said Melrose after the initial hearing on the suit.
The process the school board used in making this emotionally fraught decision is important. When government entities run by elected officials make these hard decisions, process is important. All of the discussions and documents — for the most part — should be part of the public record.
And that’s my problem with Central’s closing. I won’t argue that it was a mistake to close the small school that had a declining student population and was being under-utilized. School systems in this era of miserly financial support from the state legislature and a never-raise-property-taxes mentality locally must be judicious stewards of the money they get. They have a tough task in balancing budgets and allocating funding in a way that is best for students and staff.
On the other hand, school leaders have a solemn obligation to parents and taxpayers. Central’s proposed closing was announced in January and the vote to shutter its doors came in February. School officials said there was a lot of background work prior to making those decisions, but there was no media coverage, no public dissemination of information and no citizen input into all that studying, analysis and discussion. All of that occurred very quietly.
In defending the school board’s actions, its attorney Pat Smathers said at a school board meeting that “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.”
Last week David Teague, the father of a recent Haywood County Schools graduate, argued in a guest column (www.smokymountainnews.com/opinion/item/18073) for many of the same points being raised here. He made this point as to why he thought the lawsuit should move forward:
“The process by which school board committees, and the school board itself, evaluated their options is important for the public to understand, and not only for the obvious reasons of relocating students and staff or controlling expenses. Decisions of this magnitude don’t just affect students and staff. They affect the regular activities of hundreds of other people and that could mean everything from where they stop for coffee or drop off their vehicles for repairs, to scheduling appointments or community activities around school events. Every part of the decision-making process suggests the public needs to be informed and engaged about the options under consideration before a vote is taken.”
And then there is the video of the January 2016 school board meeting that shows Superintendent Anne Garrett and school board members fretting that some would think Central’s closing was happening so they would have a location for a new central office. Statements from that video directly contradict public statements made a month later regarding the future use of Central Elementary School once it was closed.
There are valid questions about the process used and the explanations from school officials. Sometimes lawsuits are frivolous and simply waste time and money, both precious resources for public officials. In this case, the opposite is true. We need some answers.