Local schools now getting food from local farmers

The growing local food movement that is gaining traction around the country has made its way into Haywood County Schools, where the first shipment of Haywood County produce rolled in earlier this year.

The tomatoes, peppers and corn came courtesy of Skipper Russell, a local farmer who is the only one in the county allowed to sell to the school system.

Russell works a 35-acre farm in Bethel called Seasonal Produce Farms, and his newest client is thanks to his recent GAP certification, a requirement for any farmer wishing to peddle their wares in schools and other government cafeterias.

GAP is short for Good Agriculture Practices, and it’s a strict set of guidelines that ensure food safety, making sure that what gets to the plate was grown and tended the right way. Most farmers say it’s just a recorded verification of what they’re already doing, since good agriculture practices aren’t just nice, they’re what produces quality, sellable produce.

But it’s not a cheap proposition, and each crop must be certified separately. It can take around $1,500 per crop, and sometimes that burden is too much for small farmers to recoup.

Plus, it’s time consuming and pretty onerous.

“The manual’s probably about two inches thick,” said Russell. “It’s a long drawn out process to get to them (the school system), you don’t just go up to them and start selling. But it’s something that more and more people are going to be looking for.”

And that’s why he did it, because he can see what’s coming down the road. Getting certified opens a lot of doors for medium and large farms to get their food into steady, reliable markets like schools. But Russell thinks it will soon close doors for those who don’t have it, as an increasing number of restaurants, stores and even consumers want to know just how the tomatoes on their table were taken care of before getting there.

With the recent outbreaks of E-coli in Europe and listeria still rearing its head in this nation’s cantaloupe, food safety is a hotter button than ever.

In Jackson County Schools, the move has been afoot towards local food — defined by the federal government as anything grown in-state, while local advocacy group the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project considers anything grown within 100 miles as local.

Jim Hill, the child nutrition director there, said he’d love to buy from more hyperlocal producers, but is overall in favor of the GAP regulations that sometimes hamstrings him in that effort.

“I don’t really want 10 farmers in pickup trucks backing up through the schools,” said Hill “You’d rather go through some kind of centralized co-op or warehouse or somewhere where it’s being checked really closely.”

But, he said, with GAP being such a costly endeavor — farmers have to pay the auditors for every hour of their inspection, starting when they leave Raleigh — it’s unfortunately pricing many local producers out of the market.

“The problem with that is, in my opinion, that it really, really, really hurts the small farmer because it’s very expensive to get that GAP certification,” said Hill “The state encourages us to by from locals, but they do make it really hard for us to buy from local farmers.”

One way around that, he said, is to go through a third party, a distributor who is certified, but doesn’t buy exclusively from GAP approved farmers.

That is a tactic he and other school systems use, but they’d prefer to ax the middleman and deal straight with the farmer, a better deal for both sides.

Alison Francis, child nutrition director in Haywood County Schools, said that, with Russell, cutting that middleman has helped them support their neighboring farm and reduce their bottom line simultaneously.

Tomatoes bought from Russell, for example, are nearly half the cost of tomatoes from their national supplier. And for a system that buys a dozen 25-pound cases of them each week, $10 per case instead of $19 adds up quickly.

In Jackson County, they’ve cut out the middleman on the salad bar by simply growing their own.

The hydroponic lettuce is grown by high school students at Smoky Mountain High School in their on-campus greenhouse, and eventually makes its way into the cafeteria what Hill has dubbed ‘Mustang Salads.”

“It’s the closest thing you can imagine to branding a salad,” said Hill. “You can brand a pizza ... but it’s really hard to brand a salad.”

The idea is that if kids know their classmates or siblings or friends grew the salad, they’re much more likely to eat it. They feel more invested in it.

And that’s one of the benefits both Hill and Francis find in local food: it teaches students about where their food comes from, an area in which many kids have a surprising dearth of knowledge.

Francis tells of a time when the subject of food origin came up in an elementary school.

“They asked about if anybody knew where bacon came from and most kids didn’t even know that bacon came from a pig,” said Francis. “I think it’s really important for the kids to see where their food comes from. It’s good for them to know that their food came from just down the road.”

WCU, SCC reach out to community

They are dubbed by some in the community as the Three Amigos: a new chancellor at Western Carolina university, David Belcher; a new president at Southwestern Community College, Donald Tomas; and a new superintendent of schools for Jackson County; Mike Murray.

Each started their respective positions July 1. Each promises new eras of leadership that connects their respective institution’s educational efforts to the overall good of the community. Each seem comfortable in, and energetic about, their roles as institutional and community leaders.

“Openness, honesty and transparency,” Tomas said during his introductory remarks at a community meeting this week. SCC, which serves residents of Jackson, Macon and Swain counties and the Cherokee Indian Reservation, is piggybacking strategic planning efforts on those of neighboring WCU.

Tomas said the Three Amigos have been meeting and discussing educational and community issues.

“This is an extremely exciting and unique opportunity,” he said.

The university, under the baton of Belcher, is holding a series of seven community meetings in the region to hear what residents have to say about the school’s future. About 45 or 50 people, many of them WCU and SCC employees, turned out for the Jackson County hearing, though far fewer than that opted to actually stand up and speak.

Those who did called on WCU and SCC to help bolster a sagging economy, but to do so while protecting the region’s natural resources and great beauty. They discussed a lack of childcare for professionals; and more specific needs, such as a request by Julie Spiro, executive director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, for WCU to again produce a regional economic report. Susie Ray, a retired WCU employee, urged the university to tap into the huge retiree population in WNC and corner a niche on “creative retirement.”

There were complaints that WCU wasn’t accessible to the community. The swimming pool, for instance, is closed to the public unless you are a student or WCU employee, forcing those who want to swim for exercise to motor over the Balsams to Waynesville. Continuing education classes are priced out of the reach of anyone except, perhaps, retired employees from WCU.

Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten, who retired from the university after 30 years service, told his former colleagues that many in the community simply don’t feel comfortable on campus. They feel uneasy and out of place. And, in turn, many of WCU’s faculty and staff choose to live somewhere other than Jackson County, with their connections to the community limited to commuting back and forth to work.

Vance Davidson, an SCC trustee, spoke similarly of the “silo” mentality that’s afflicted the various Jackson County educational institutions.

“We are a lot better together than we are apart,” Davidson said. “We have not enjoyed the best university, town, community relationships — we need to change that.”

Religious graduation speech in Macon raises issues over separation of church and state

The Macon County School system has changed its tune on the controversial preacher who delivered an overtly religious speech at Nantahala School’s June graduation ceremony.

Superintendent Dan Brigman initially defended the content of the speech in an article published in The Smoky Mountain News, but after receiving a complaint from the national Freedom From Religion Foundation, Brigman said “circumstances prevented a proper vetting” of the Nantahala graduation speaker.

Brigman said the school system “will ensure that future graduation speakers refrain from religious speech.”

In an Aug. 4 letter responding to the foundation’s complain, Brigman didn’t expressly say that the school had erred, but implied that the vetting process had failed when the Rev. Daniel “Cowboy” Stewart was picked as the commencement speaker.

Stewart offered prayers at the graduation and delivered a sermon that involved wrapping a student volunteer in ropes to demonstrate the hold of the devil.

Rebecca Markert, attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said she sent a letter to the school system after a local resident contacted the foundation with concerns.

Her letter, sent more than a month prior to Brigman’s response, asked that the school system take “immediate steps to ensure that religious ritual and proselytizing” stay out of graduations in the future.

In his response, Brigman defended the school system, saying that it didn’t and wouldn’t intentionally schedule a prayer or sermon. Markert, however, pointed out that the school should’ve known Stewart’s intent.

“Not only should the district have realized Stewart was apt to view the speaking engagement as a carte blanche invitation to abuse the situation to proselytize to a captive audience, but the district is on record endorsing his sermon,” said Markert’s letter. “Your very own public statements about the sermon expressed no disapproval.”

Indeed, Brigman told The Smoky Mountian News and other media outlets that he saw no problem with Stewart, as he had been chosen by the graduating students.

“It wasn’t a revival, but he had some strong encouraging words for the kids to make good decisions,” Brigman told The Smoky Mountain News after the graduation.

Student-led prayer is allowed in schools, but the law prohibits outside speakers or school-sponsored events from including religious elements such as prayers, sermons or Biblical object lessons.

Markert said this is a situation she sees quite often. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national membership organization with chapters around the country. It’s dedicated to preserving the separation of church and state.

“We cover a wide range of state-church violations,” said Markert. “The biggest complaints we receive are about religion in schools.”

As the staff attorney, Markert acts on those complaints, conducting background investigations and then sending what are essentially cease-and-desist letters and pushing issues into court when necessary.

She sends out between 10 and 20 letters a week, and mostly what she’s looking for in return are letters such as Brigman’s: a mea culpa of some sort and promise of better future behavior.

Mostly, she said, that’s what she gets, especially in school cases, because the law is so clear.

“I think there’s been rare occasions where we haven’t heard back and in those instances we have talked to the plaintiffs to see if they’re interested in suing. But really, it rarely every happens,” said Markert.

The school system’s response signals, perhaps, that they were aware of such a legal threat.

“Macon County Schools is committed to protecting the rights of its students, parents and teachers,” Brigman wrote in the letter. “We do employ a process to prevent the presentation of inappropriate materials to our students.”

This time around, Brigman referred all questions on the issue to the school system’s lawyer, John Henning. Henning said that the school system’s policy was not at fault, but it wasn’t exactly followed in this situation.

“The process that we would follow now is that presentations or materials that will be presented need to be reviewed by the principal and the principal will make a determination,” said Henning. Nantahala School Principal Robbie Newton died of cancer before the end of last school year, and the duty never fell to anyone else.

Henning, however, said the school system received no complaints from students or residents, but one other letter from a group called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Swain football team tackles summer reading list

There are a lot of things associated with the words “high school football.” Three-a-days. Pep rallies. Weight rooms. The quarterback sneak.

Summer reading club isn’t usually one of them.

Coach Sam Pattillo, however, would beg to differ. He is the head football coach at Swain County High School, and every one of his players has been in a summer reading group for the last three years.

He’s not just going along with a program that someone else came up with, either. The reading was his idea, and he’s the one pushing it with his players.

“It’s building that relationship with our teachers and [the] expectation that academics is first, athletics is below that,” said Pattillo. He wears a lot of other hats at the small school, but he’s known first, at school and in the larger community, as the football coach, and a good one. The students respect him and that’s helped in getting them on board with the unorthodox program.

“Males tend to process things differently, and we tend not to take the time to read like we should,” said Pattillo. “We started it in order to put a focus on literacy and to establish some value for reading. It’s all before school starts, and basically a part of that too is to get them started thinking about school, being together as a team going through this process.”

In the summer before practices begin, the players are given books and Kindle e-readers to get a jump on the material.

The coaches read the books with the boys, and they get helmet stickers for doing well in the program, just as they would for making crucial plays or excelling in practice.

On the reading end of the program is Dawn Gilchrist-Young, the head of Swain High’s English department.

She’s in charge of the books, the post-reading questions players answer and the discussion groups they have after.

The success of the program, she said, is somewhat hard to gauge. One of the defining characteristics of a high school is that the population is different every year. So with new kids always moving in and out, pinning down how much good extra summer reading is doing is a bit tough.

But the message the program sends, she said, is a success in itself.

“Since football gives Swain County something to kind of hang its hat on, having the football team do a summer reading program tells the whole county about what we’re doing here,” said Gilchrist-Young.

The idea being that if Swain is a football county, it’s significant to have the football team saying it’s a reading county, too.

“What you’re saying is academics are important and it’s what will see you through.”

Both coach and teacher say they’ve seen a positive response from the players, even if some are reluctant at first. And, Pattillo points out, this is not what’s normally on the menu for high school football practice.

“It actually is a paradigm change, because it’s not all football,” he said.

“It’s a big deal to ask a kid who is not necessarily interested in taking AP [advanced placement] classes to do summer reading,” adds Gilchrist-Young.

By now, they’re accustomed to what’s coming in July. The second year of the program, the chosen book — Friday Night Lights — was requested by a few players who said they’d like to read it.

While the immediate goal of the program was to get books into the hands and minds of more students, the end game is a broader, more macro approach.

What’s the final goal, asks Gilchrist-Young?

“That all of our students go to Ivy League schools and then come back and commit themselves to the betterment of Swain County,” she said, smiling. “Or another ideal would be that they read to their children, love the tradition, have a kid on their lap at night, reading a book.”

That long game is an approach being taken by not just one teacher and one coach, but by the school system as a whole.

That’s where Steve Claxton comes in. As the community schools coordinator, one of the things in his charge is promoting reading in schools.

“We thought, ‘Well, how early can we start?’” said Claxton. The answer:  “Well, when they’re born.”

The school system partnered with Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva, where most Swain County families go to have their babies. Now, every Swain County child born in that hospital goes out into the world with a book.

The system is using the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, a program founded by the buxom country beauty to increase childhood literacy.

Through the program, the brand new babies leave the hospital with their own copy of children’s classic The Little Engine That Could, and they’re then mailed a book a month for the first four years of their life.

By the time they get to kindergarten, Swain County’s 2030 graduating class will all have a personal library that’s 60 books strong.

For kids who were born a little too early to catch that train from birth, the school system went into preschools around the county and offered the program to families.

This year, it cost a little more than they anticipated, around $8,000.

“We have 467 preschoolers in our county, and they [the program organizers] said to expect about 50 in the first year,” said Claxton. But they had 277 sign up. “We’re already halfway through our entire preschool population.”

They also bring high school students into preschool classes as readers, promoting literacy in students on both ends of the educational spectrum.

In addition to building libraries for preschoolers, the school system is giving parents the tools to know what to do with them.

They’ve produced two brochures — one for supermarkets and one for hiking trips — that teach parents how to make reading a part of both situations with their little ones. They’re also working with families who might not be able to read to their children, to foster early reading skills and help parents’ reading abilities, too.

“We have parents in this county who are illiterate. They can’t read to their kids. So we work with our siblings,” said Claxton. “They can take a book home that’s age appropriate for their siblings so they can read to them at night. That’s helping both kids.”

Most of these programs have only been going for a few years, but with the aggressive stance the schools are taking on reading, Claxton, Gilchrist-Young and Pattillo are hoping they’ll prove their value in the smarter more literate kids walking out the school’s doors. The programs are designed not only to get kids reading today, but to imbue them with a love of reading for years to come.

Back-to-school date lands Macon in court

If this were a race, Macon County Schools would win for being the first in Western North Carolina — maybe even the state — to end summer vacation and start classes again.

Teachers returned Monday; students go back Thursday (August 4).

And that’s just too soon, in Sabrina Hawkins’ opinion. The Highlands resident has three school-aged children of her own in the county’s school system.

Hawkins and the North Carolina chapter of the national advocacy group Save Our Summers have filed a petition against the state Board of Education to try to force a later starting date. The case is scheduled for October.

The issue by then would be moot, of course, so pending the trial, Hawkins and the group sought a court injunction to postpone this week’s opening date until August 25. That’s the North Carolina mandated go-back-to-school date for all systems that don’t have a waiver.

A state administrative law judge last week, however, denied the injunction. The trial can go forward, though the group failed in delaying this year’s start date.

So what’s it all about — getting a longer tourist season? Hawkins said no, it’s not about tourism dollars, though she and her husband, Bill, do own and operate the 1880-built Highlands Inn. The lawsuit, she said, is about not taking away that important balance of schoolwork and play for children.

“This has nothing to do with my business,” Hawkins said. “And, I’m not an anti-school advocate — I just feel like they need a long break. What has it been, six or seven weeks off? It feels like we just got out of school.”

Macon County School Board Chairman Tommy Cabe said maybe it’s because he’s from an older generation, but he’s “just fine” with an early August start to school.

“I remember when we were in school, and we had three full months off in summer, but that’s because we worked in the fields,” Cabe said.

Up until 2004, all school systems had autonomy over when to start and end, as long as they met the mandatory number of school days in a year. But a lobbying effort orchestrated by the tourism industry, vying for longer summers and hopefully more family vacations, led to a state law preventing schools from starting back before the end of August.

School systems that see lots of snow days, and thus need the wiggle room of an earlier start date, could get waivers. The law also allows exceptions for individual schools for “educational purposes.”

Macon’s school board in February asked for a waiver to allow remedial intercession periods for students, sessions of intense work to help them catch up when they’ve fallen behind other students.

“The bottom line isn’t to try to get around the calendar laws, it is about student performance,” said Macon County Schools Superintendent Dan Brigman, who added that 62 percent of students in Macon County receive free or reduced lunches. He said that school leaders want to “close opportunity gaps for these children.”

The N.C. Board of Education said OK in April.

In June, Hawkins and the Save Our Summers-NC group filed its petition. A July motion by the state board to dismiss the case was denied, paving the way for an eventual hearing

The case hinges on whether the state Board of Education should have granted waivers to all 10 Macon County schools under the “educational purpose” exception to the law. The school board should not have granted what, in essence, was actually a countywide waiver because that isn’t legal, according to the petition by Save Our Summers.

“It’s simply to try to build in enrichment and remediation opportunities for students,” Brigman said in response. Brigman said that’s the date school always started back until the new law was passed.

More than two dozen jobs lost at state teaching center

A state teacher-training center based in Cullowhee has slashed half its workforce in the fallout of a nearly 50-percent budget cut by the General Assembly.

The N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching went from a state-funded budget of $6.1 million to $3.1 million.

The 25-year institution, which is credited with helping the state to retain teachers by inspiring them through professional development, had 82 full and part-time workers. Thirteen of those are based at NCCAT’s smaller campus in Ocracoke. The final stay-or-leave numbers for that campus are still in flux.

But in Cullowhee, 22 fulltime positions and 11 hourly-contracted positions were eliminated. Additionally, three workers opted to go from fulltime positions to three-quarter time positions, and eight vacant positions are not being filled. Total, including Ocracoke, 35 to 40 positions are being eliminated.

Linda Suggs, chair of NCCAT’s board of trustees, said in a news release that NCCAT will be reorganizing and shifting resources to best serve the teachers and schools of North Carolina.

“This is an opportunity for us to reinvent ourselves while remaining true to our vision of advancing teaching as an art and a profession,” Suggs said at a recent joint meeting of the NCCAT Board of Trustees and the Development Foundation of NCCAT. “We can still impact a large number of teachers with this budget.”

Elaine Franklin, executive director of NCCAT, said a budget cut of this magnitude made a reduction in the size of the organization unavoidable. The organization hopes to raise more in private funds and grants to help offset the losses. NCCAT’s new model will be characterized by a move toward greater diversity in terms of programming content, sources of funding and use of resources, she said.

“During this fiscal year, we will be transitioning to a new model for delivering NCCAT’s mission,” Franklin said.

By reducing the number of week-long residential seminars, where teachers from around the state travel to NCCAT to participate, the center will bring training directly to schools to provide a greater degree of outreach, Franklin said.

“Our goal is to maintain NCCAT’s reputation for high-quality professional development programs and services,” Suggs said, “but to do so in a way that is fiscally sound and supported by educational policy in the twenty-first century.”

— By Quintin Ellison

Paddling on the decline, but still alive in WNC schools

In North Carolina, it’s illegal to hit a prison inmate. You can’t hit a child in a day care center. Military officers can’t hit their subordinates. In workplaces, nursing homes, hospitals and elsewhere, hitting is forbidden. It is even illegal to hit an animal.

But in the state’s public schools, there’s no ban on hitting, because North Carolina is one of 19 states that still allows corporal punishment to be used in schools.

The practice, once common, has fallen out of favor, but there are still 38 school districts out of 115 in North Carolina that allow kids to be punished with the paddle.

Only 17 used it last year, and only a handful of times compared to some other states, but the option still exists for teachers and administrators who find it effective. Haywood, Macon and Swain are among those that use it. Jackson and the Eastern Band do not.

Starting this school year, however, the choice falls into the hands of parents, who will be able to opt-out of corporal punishment for their child.

A bill just passed by the N.C. General Assembly requires school districts to get parent permission for corporal punishment at the beginning of the school year, a right already given to parents of students with disabilities last year.

Before, the only parental involvement required was notification. Schools had to let parents know they’d done it, but not necessarily before, and they certainly didn’t have to ask permission.

Allison Best-Teague of Waynesville is one parent who will be taking the state up on that offer.

She doesn’t use that kind of discipline in her own house and is glad she can now have a say in what happens to him at school, too.

“I’m actually against it for the school system overall, so I’m very glad to have the option to opt out for my child,” said Best-Teague. “I really think the bigger problem is that the state is still allowing it.”

Best-Teague now runs Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville, but she was once the director of KARE, a Haywood County anti-child abuse organization.

In her role there, she helped parents learn how to deal with disciplining their children. In all the methods she worked with, she never saw corporal punishment listed as an option.

The new state law is a win for groups such as Action For Children, a statewide policy group that advocates for the eradication of corporal punishment in North Carolina schools.

“It has helped that the legislature has voted on this, it has changed policies,” said Tom Vitaglione, a senior fellow with the group. “It means that the school district’s that are still allowing it will have to reassess their position on this.”

And in Haywood County, that’s certainly true. It has been used extremely sparingly in Haywood — only 16 times out of student population of more than 7,000 between 2008 and 2010. This past school year, Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte estimates fewer than 10 instances of paddling in the county’s schools.

“It’s just not used very often and when it is, it’s by parent request,” said Nolte. None of his schools, he said, ever suggest it to parents. But they might comply if a parent asks for it.

Now, however, the new state law might lead Haywood to end corporal punishment all together for fear of sending the wrong message to parents, Nolte said. The school system would have to send permission forms to the parents of all 7,000 students, creating the false public perception that corporal punishment is commonplace, Nolte said.

Nolte said the decision will be up to individual principals. But he doubts many will choose to send that paper home.

“It’s not worth the trouble or the message to have that option available for five students,” he said.

The result will likely be a de facto end to corporal punishment in Haywood.

The issue is expected to be on the agenda at Macon and Swain County school board meetings this month, if not to look at a ban, at least to discuss the new regulations.

To what end?

In Western North Carolina, there are a number of districts that still allow corporal punishment. Haywood, Macon, Swain, Graham and Transylvania counties are still on the list, as are Burke and McDowell. Jackson County banned it in 2001, and Cherokee and Clay counties have stopped over the past three years. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians school system does not use corporal punishment, either.

Even among chronic users, however, the numbers have dropped precipitously in recent years.

Burke County, for example, paddled 325 kids in the 2008-2009 school year. The next year, it was only 93.

Macon County was much the same: 71 in 2008-2009, but just 30 the following year.

School officials and advocates such as Vitaglione chalk this up to increased awareness and changing times.

“I really think it’s probably a form of discipline that has aged out,” said Nolte. “It’s probably timed out in terms of its broad scope effectiveness.”

Dan Brigman, Macon County’s superintendent, concurs.

“Based on historical data, that’s what I’m seeing,” said Brigman. “I think corporal punishment is effective somewhat on a few students, but in most instances it’s a temporary disciplinary measure and if it impacts long term behavior, that’s a question.”

And that view is essentially a watered-down version of what groups such as Action For Children have long been saying.

“Over the last two decades, study after study has come out regarding school discipline, and none have found that corporal punishment is effective, and by that we mean in ongoing student behavior,” said Vitaglione. “Whatever indicator you use, there’s no correlation in using corporal punishment and improving any of those other outcomes that you’d like in schools.”

And the literature seems to back up that outlook.

Studies in places such as Psychological Bulletin and the Journal of School Psychology have noted little if any long-term changes in how students act because of paddling.

The debate over corporal punishment, though, is unlike other contentious issues in one notable way: it’s pretty difficult to find a strong advocate on the other side of the ideological divide.

There are plenty who have taken the findings as ammunition for their vocal campaigns against the practice. The American Academy of Pediatrics has taken a position against it. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch teamed up in 2009 on a study and subsequent campaign that decried the use of corporal punishment on students with disabilities. Urban clothing pioneer Marc Ecko has launched a crusade called Unlimited Justice, a play on his Ecko Unlimited label, that seeks to ban physical punishment in all 50 states. There are numerous regional and local groups who have set up opposition.

But on the other side, it seems that there are only a few school administrators who will make a defense for it, and even then it’s half-hearted and with some pretty strong caveats.

“It works on some occasions, on other occasions, that’s not the answer for it,” said Bob Marr, Swain County superintendent.

It could be, as Nolte said, that the practice is just trending out, fading in deference to a more modern perspective.

The touchy legal ramifications probably don’t hurt, though.

While North Carolina hasn’t really faced court challenges over corporal punishment, it is also pretty low in the numbers rankings.

Take Mississippi. In 2009-2010, Action For Children estimates there were 38,000 instances of corporal punishment in that state’s schools. Fellow Southern states Arkansas, Texas and Alabama were similarly inclined, their numbers reaching into the tens of thousands. In comparison, North Carolina’s approximately 700 instances are hardly in the same league.

In Mississippi, however, three suits were brought against school systems for corporal punishment in 2010.

One, a gender discrimination suit brought by a male high schooler, is still working its way through the courts. Two others were money damages suits brought against a single district. The students in those cases were 11 and 6.

In Tennessee, a high school basketball player brought a case against his coaches for what the player said was excessive use of paddling. He lost on appeal, as the court said the action was disciplinary.

That sticking point is one of the key objections of anti-corporal punishment activists.

In North Carolina, teachers and administrators are immune from any prosecution over practicing physical discipline unless the child needs medical attention.

Even then, said Vitaglione, he’s not encountered a parent willing to prosecute.

“There have been a few instances where we’ve heard of a child being injured, but we have not had a family who was willing to participate in filing a suit,” said Vitaglione. “In part they feel intimidated, in part they feel guilty on their own. We, frankly, are loathe to get into that as well. We would prefer that the decision be made in the school board room or in the legislature.”

The legislature, however, is unlikely to enact an outright ban anytime soon. Bills with such proposals were defeated in 2007, 2008 and 2009. This most recent bill leaves the choice in local and parental hands, and both lobbyists and legislators anticipate that it will stay that way.

“Probably not,” was Rep. Ray Rapp’s, D-Mars Hill, answer, when asked if he saw a blanket ban coming anytime soon, although Rapp himself does not support corporal punishment. “I would say that most legislators may have strong feelings one way or the other on it, but they’re content to leave it to local jurisdictions.”

Action For Children says they’ll take what they can get, but statewide elimination is really what they’re pushing for.

One of the main reasons is oversight. There really isn’t any. The state has hitherto not required any reporting of corporal punishment statistics, nor have they handed down any guidelines on how, when or why the discipline can be meted out.

In Haywood County, it’s a principals-only policy. In other school districts, teachers, teacher’s assistants and even substitute teachers are allowed.

Without more careful oversight, say advocacy groups, some sections of the student population may be getting a disproportionate share of the corporal punishment.

Nationally, that ACLU-Human Rights Watch study found this to be the case for students with disabilities. They found those students twice as likely to be hit than the general student body.

Rapp believes that’s partly why it’s on the decline, and why lawmakers were spurred to action on the issue over the last few years.

“Without the strictest supervision and care, you can easily find yourself in court,” said Rapp.

In North Carolina, the districts that allow spanking and paddling are quickly dwindling. Gaston County eliminated it a few months ago. Vitaglione expects Greene County to follow suit at their school board meeting next week. The issue came up at Monday’s Swain County School Board meeting, where the board decided to send the forms to parents this year and revisit the question later.

Macon County’s school board is scheduled to discuss it later this month, if not to consider a ban, at least to look at new regulations.

Nationwide, the trend is also towards extinction for the disciplinary tactic. Most major urban areas have long since outlawed it — New York City schools have had a policy against it since the 19th century.

States that still allow it are mostly in the South, with a few dotted around the rural west.

Internationally, the United States is alone among developed nations in still allowing it in schools. Many developing nations — Iran, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Malawi, Namibia and many others — also forbid it.

Though a nationwide ban seems as unlikely as a state proscription, it’s more plausible that de facto bans will become more widespread, as legislation like North Carolina’s recent bill become more commonplace.

Locally, school administrators say most parents think it has already long been phased out anyway.

“I do think the new law probably makes it impractical to even have as an option,” said Haywood’s Bill Nolte. “Do you want to sent home 7,000 sheets of paper for something you may or may not even do? What’s the practicality in that?”

Haywood school workers to see forced time off

At least we have our jobs.

That seems to be the reaction to cost-cutting measures taken last week by Haywood County Schools in response to up to $4 million in cuts from the federal, state and local funding.

More than 200 Haywood County school employees will see their work year shortened, allowing the school system to avoid outright layoffs.

School officials are cutting 12 days out of teacher assistant contracts, trimming assistant principals from an 11.5-month year to only 11 months and taking two weeks salary from food-service workers. Bus drivers are also losing some compensation, namely the bonus they got for perfect attendance and a good driving record.

Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte said he knew this was a tough pill to swallow, but the school system was trying to save jobs by spreading the pain a little, and, he said, the employees seemed to understand that.

“You think that when someone gets their time and their pay cut, they would be upset, but I’ve had several calls saying it seems like it would be a difficult thing to do and it seems like the right thing to do to save as many jobs as you can,” said Nolte.

That’s exactly what Sherri Green thinks. Green is a first-grade assistant at Jonathan Valley Elementary in Maggie Valley. She’s been a teacher assistant for 11 years now, and prior to last week, she and her colleagues were concerned that their jobs would be lost along with state funding.

“It’s certainly not an ideal situation, but we are relieved that we got keep our jobs. I understand the state cuts and how that works, but locally we’re really glad, because they’ve had to make some major adjustments,” said Green.

Nolte said that when they broke the news to staff, some were ready to volunteer their time. But, said Nolte, it’s just not allowed.

“It’s illegal,” said Nolte. “You can’t force someone or expect someone to put in hours that you don’t expect to pay them for.”

Green said that, though she and her compatriots are relieved, the cuts are going to force some into a search for a second job, especially if the lost pay checks become status quo.

“You could tell so many of us were relieved. There were a few tears shed,” said Green “But yes, it is going to be hard, 12 days without pay. To us, that’s over $1,000 to most of us, and that’s a lot of money. We’re relieved but we’re still in that position that, yes, some of us might have to take a second job.”

The cut work hours will save the school system roughly $325,000. It’s not quite enough to cover what they’re missing from local funding, the part of the school’s budget that comes from the county commissioners, allocated out of their annual expenditures.

Nolte said that’s part of the problem: they expected cuts from the state level. That whisper has been coming down from the governor’s office since snow was on the ground. But they weren’t quite ready for the 3 percent local cut, which works out to around $430,000, or the federal cuts that they’re going to face, around $100,000.

When commissioners proposed cutting school funding, County Manager Marty Stamey suggested educators dip into their robust reserves to cover the losses. The school system has a sizeable fund balance. But, said Nolte, they were already planning to use that.

“We’ll definitely be using the EduJobs money [federal funds allocated last year] and some of the fund balance,” said Nolte.

But, he said, they’ve only got the fund balance because they’ve been careful with the money they get. In essence, said Nolte, they’ve been carefully squirreling away in the rainy-day fund, but it’s still not enough.

They haven’t touched teacher positions in the work-time reductions because they can’t; that’s negotiated at a state level.

But Nolte said they’re also trying to stay as far away from the classroom as they can for as long as they can.

“Always, we want to, if we can, look at administrative reduction,” said Nolte.

And the school system is going to lose eight non-classroom positions, seven teacher assistants and 10 teachers, though they’re frozen positions that former employees have left, not been laid off from.

And now, as he has been throughout the recent budget debate, Nolte is warning that only so much cutting can be done without damage ensuing.

“At some point in time, cuts of that magnitude begin to affect quality and service,” said Nolte. “At some point in time, if you cut off enough parts, things don’t work as well as they did before.”

Few find anything to like in Haywood budget proposal

Haywood County residents told commissioners just what they thought of funding reductions at a hearing last week over the county’s new budget.

Thirty people came to the meeting, where commissioners took comments on the 2011-12 budget, which decreases funding to schools by 3 percent.

Though fewer than a third of the crowd voiced their opinions, many who did either opposed the education slashing or chided the board for its increasing debt load, proposed increase to the tax rate and recent property revaluation.

Some, like Marietta Edwards, questioned where the county’s money was going.

“We need money for the schools. We don’t need fancy buildings, we don’t need these high expenditures,” said Edwards. “We need to be careful how we spend our money.”

Others came to plead only for the reinstatement of school funding, which they said was vital to the county’s educational success.

“We’re doing good things here in Haywood County,” said Tuscola High School Principal Dale McDonald. “But the budget has the possibility of losing some assistant principals. In five years, I will not be a principal at Tuscola High School. I’ll be retired. But you’ve got to have somebody ready to step in and fill those shoes.”

Commissioners noted that they weren’t responsible for line item cuts to school budgets. They just provide the funding figure, not specifics on how that money is used.

But school advocates said that regardless of where the cuts come from, they’d still be detrimental to the effort to school the county’s kids.

Commissioners countered the complaints — they understand, said board members, that cuts are never fun or easy. But when state is slashing around 10 percent, there are few options.

“This board takes handling the county money seriously,” said Commissioner Bill Upton, a former Pisgah High School principal and long-time superintendent for the county’s schools. “When I was in schools, it was how you handled the kids that was the most important, and now as a county commissioner it’s how you handle the billfold that’s the most important.”

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick assured the assembled crowd that setting a higher tax rate — 54.13 cents as opposed to 51.4 cents last year — wasn’t a flippant decision by the board, but it’s how they’ll stay revenue neutral after a property revaluation as the whole state faces dire economic straits.

“What we have to do is weigh what we think is necessary and needed and try to establish the best budget possible with that. We don’t sit up here and establish a tax rate that we’re not going to pay as well,” said Kirkpatrick.

Though the hearing was a chance for citizens to voice their pleasure or grievance with the proposed budget, it was also a forum for commissioners to defend their decisions and fact check some ill-founded constituent complaints, such as the claim by one man that the county was subsidizing a cowboy church at the fairgrounds.

The proposed budget hasn’t yet been adopted by commissioners, but they’re expected to discuss it at their next meeting on June 20.

Haywood Schools’ leaders claim call for education reform misdirected

Above national average. Above state average. Highest regional composite ranking.

These are a few of the phrases that stand out in a recent letter from Haywood County Schools Superintendent Anne Garrett and Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte.

The missive is not so much an informational paean, extolling the school system’s triumphs as an offensive tactic, as a rebuttal to the call for across-the-board school reform. And more specifically to the local group that’s advocating it.

Tea for Education is an advocacy group whose central tenet is school choice. It’s headquartered on Walnut Street in Waynesville, and earlier this month, the group sent Haywood County Schools, along with county commissioners and local media, a white paper on school reform, accompanied by a letter requesting that it be read “with an open mind.”

And, said Nolte, that’s exactly what they did. But they’re pretty sure they’re fine without the paper’s suggestions, thanks.

“We very often have people come to us and say, ‘You need to use this program that’s used by so-and-so school and so-and-so state,’ but usually when we look at it, we’re outperforming the folks that they want us to be like,” said Nolte.

Bruce Gardner, a school reform advocate behind Tea for Education, said he was disappointed in the quick rebuff the school system shot back with.

“They’re right in being proud in their accomplishments. But if they think there’s no improvements can be made, well, you can always improve on anything,” said Gardner.

But from where Nolte sits, it did not take long to determine Haywood County is already doing more with less — and doing it better.

“When we have people who seriously ask us to look at something and consider something, we try and give them a response,” said Nolte. “I cannot pretend to know why they sent that to us. I don’t know if they’re asking us to change. But the point that I would like to make is if you want high-performing schools that spend less than almost everyone else, then we’re your school system.”

Tea for Education, headed by Haywood County residents Gardner and Beverly Elliott who are also active in the local Tea Party, put out the paper at the same time that they hosted screenings of the documentary Waiting for Superman, a recent lightning rod of controversy in the national school-reform debate.

The paper was put together by a Colorado group called the Centennial Institute, and lists tactics such as abandoning class size reduction, cutting administrative spending and revamping standardized testing, among others. The main idea is this: school budgets have increased over the decades, but test scores haven’t, so change is needed.

The research behind the paper is directed specifically at Colorado schools, but Gardner and Elliott believe that it holds lessons that can be applied anywhere.

“What our goals were in sending out the package were to send out information that has been developed in terms of improving education. When organizations spend a great deal of money working on how to improve a system, it makes sense to read and share it,” said Gardner, who noted that he was disappointed by what he saw as the schools’ failure to even give it a second look.

“I saw no instance from where they may have derived any kind of idea from it. It’s great to be proud of achievements, but I don’t understand their ingrained reluctance or fear of competition,” said Gardner.

Nolte, though, counters that, when it comes to school reform, why reform something that’s succeeding?

“We’re very supportive of school reform. We think low-performing schools should do better. We just hope and pray that people will not lump us in with schools that don’t perform well and ask us to make changes that will hurt our students,” Nolte said.

This means deeper cuts than the $5 million the system has already weathered and more staff axed than the 90 they’ve lost so far. Slashing more, or toying with proven models, said Nolte, will only diminish their pupils’ success. As of 2009, their per-pupil spending — $8,929 per kid — was already in the lower half, 65th out of 115 districts in the state. Administrators say this, combined with their test scores and other rankings, should be proof that they’re already doing more with less.

But Elliott and Gardner maintain that there’s always betterment to be had. They believe that widening the educational field will bring better options to what they see as a monopoly.

“We think the parent needs to have a complete menu of ways to educate their child,” said Gardner. Besides, he notes, it’s not the local school systems they’re focusing on. Their eye is on the broader, national debate, on affecting educational change on a systemic level. If Haywood schools are doing well, then that’s a win for everyone, and one less hurdle they have to jump.

“Then why are they showing Waiting for Superman locally, if they understand that we’re nothing like those schools?” queries Nolte.

And that’s a central piece of this debate, the documentary that has sparked fervor in school-reform advocates and fury in some educators.

The film is a look at the state of the nation’s public schools by director Davis Guggenheim, well known for the environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

It highlights the country’s low performance in areas like math and science as compared to other developed nations — 25th in math and 21st in science — and puts the spotlight on notorious schools with dismal graduation rates and sinking test scores, as well as the lottery system used in larger cities for admission to the few flourishing schools.

The movie supports, in part, the school-choice mantra chanted by Tea for Education, especially with regard to public charter schools.

Right now, Haywood County has no public charter schools, and, said Gardner, the system could probably benefit both financially and academically if a few popped up. He and Elliot point to numbers saying that state- and nation-wide, charter schools can educate students for less than system schools, which would take some of the fiscal burden from districts facing deep cuts.

Nolte said he’s not against charters — as long as they can keep pace with the rest of the county’s schools in performance.

“Our job is to be really, really good and not use a lot of resources. If someone wants to start a charter school in our community, then we would say that they need to perform as well as we do with the same students that we do,” said Nolte.

Tea for Education isn’t fighting that point. Yes, they say, accomplishments should be lauded, and schools should be judged by them. But despite assertions by Haywood Schools that they are doing more with less, it’s still not enough — private schools and charter schools manage to do it for even less per student.

“We’re spending a tremendous amount of money on education, and this is not the answer,” Gardner said.


TEA for Education to hold June 7 talk

Bruce Gardner, founder of Tea for Education, will speak about school choice at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, June 7, at the Mountain High Republican Women’s Club luncheon. The luncheon will be held at the Lake Toxaway Country Club.

Cost of the lunch is $20 for advance reservations and $25 at the door. 828.507.7900 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Rally to show support for public education

The Haywood County Democrats will hold a rally for education at 12 p.m. on Thursday, June 2, on the courthouse lawn in downtown Waynesville. Representatives from the community and various organizations will speak on behalf of public education.

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