Archived Opinion

Schools vs. prisons is an easy choice

Haywood County’s 1930’s-era minimum-security prison was kept open for another year by our ever-diligent legislative delegation in Raleigh. They saved about 45 jobs and cheap labor for roadside cleaning by keeping the relic open. Meanwhile, Haywood County school supporters were forced to muscle a table through the parking lot in front of Wal-Mart — about a quarter mile as the crow flies from the old prison — because they needed to rattle the can for spare change to try to save teacher’s jobs.

The Haywood County effort to save school jobs is something being replicated, I’m sure, in other places throughout the state as school systems learned they were one of the big losers in this year’s state budget. In Haywood County, that loss was about 32 positions. In Macon County the total was about 14 and in Swain it was three jobs.

Business people have known for a long while that these are unprecedented times. Now local and state governments have finalized their first annual budgets since this recession wrapped its ugly arms around the country, and it’s a picture that is as confusing as it is frustrating. What is happening is this — taxes are being raised while at the same time costs (teaching jobs) are being cut.

So the conundrum is obvious. Should our legislators be fighting to keep open a little, inefficient prison at this time, when state studies have shown these little prisons to be more costly per inmate? It’s easy to juxtapose these two budget outcomes to argue that cutting wasteful government spending is very difficult, even in the face of what was a $4 billion state budget shortfall this year.

The point here is that it is almost impossible for lawmakers to vote for the greater good of the state in the face of pressure from constituents in their own district. The prison is a particular line item, and two similar prisons from the 1930s in Gates and Union counties are slated for closing after lawmakers finalized this year’s budget. Closing all three would have saved the state about $3.4 million a year, according to a state budget analyst quoted in several news stories.

School budgets for each county aren’t line-item expenditures. Lawmakers approve a huge dollar figure for public schools, and then it is doled out based on the number of students in each county.

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Last week we editorialized that cutting funding for an after-school program for middle schools students — another of this year’s budget decisions — was a poor decision.

My friend John Sanderson, a former principal and teacher in Haywood County, makes the same arguments for cutting teaching assistants and increasing class sizes in the lower grades.

“I can say without a doubt when you increase class size, particularly at the elementary school level, it does have a negative impact on the classroom,” he told a reporter for this paper last week.

As citizens and as a society we have responsibilities that include paying for prisons and schools. And it is not as simple as an either-or equation, because lawmakers weren’t in Raleigh weighing whether it was better to keep school classroom sizes down or whether to keep a prison open. Unfortunately for all of us — and the lawmakers — it is not that simple.

But our choices are telling. As constituents, there has never been a more important time to get involved and let lawmakers know how you feel. At the local, state and federal level, changes are under way. When there is no money, then the spending choices become ever-more important.

And there seems to be more discussion about politics and spending, priorities and values, and those things important to our country. Liberal and conservative groups are getting together to discuss issues and get their opinions out. That’s all good.

On this one, though, the choice is easy for me. I’d take schools over prisons any day. Priorities, priorities.

(Scott McLeod is editor of The Smoky Mountain News and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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