Lottery money put to bleachers, but grudgingly

A wide selection of bleachers at nearly every secondary school in Haywood County will get some repairs and replacements thanks to lottery funds approved by county commissioners, but the decision was not without contention from some on the board.

Commissioner Bill Upton, long-time superintendent for the county’s schools, raised questions about the wisdom of using lottery funds for bleachers when the state is facing a $4 billion budget shortfall.

Upton expressed concern that, in the new budget, local schools will get state teaching money slashed and may need to rely on those lottery funds, which were last year freed up by the General Assembly to pay for teachers.

“Ultimately, you’ll come to the commissioners if you need more teachers,” Upton told Tracy Hargrove, the schools’ maintenance head who came to ask for the funds.

Hargrove countered with a safety argument, telling commissioners that the school system has been cited by its insurance company since 2007 for faults in the bleachers and couldn’t really justify leaving the repairs until later when they are so frequently used.

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick told Hargrove he agreed with the measures, but was also concerned about the political and financial implications of the decision if teacher funding is, in fact, cut again in next year’s state budget.

“We don’t want to get into a political battle over, well the commissioners won’t give us money for the teachers when we’re approving improvements to bleachers,” said Kirkpatrick.

Michael Sorrells, the newest commissioner and long-time school-board member, came out in favor of the schools’ request, posing the question of what would happen if the repairs weren’t made.

“We’re just taking a chance,” answered Hargrove. “It’s got to be done at some point. We’re just taking on the liability if we don’t do something.”

In the end, the repairs passed unanimously, but Upton said he just wanted to make sure the county and its schools were thinking far enough in advance.

“It will get political when we start sending teachers home, and we will in Haywood County. I just want to make sure we think about all these things before we make a decision,” said Upton.

Sparking newfound interest in poetry: Inaugural Haywood Poetry Out Loud District Competition puts prose in the mainstream for local students

In a crowded high-school classroom last Friday, under bright fluorescent lights, a little over 50 people crammed into hard, plastic chairs and desks or stood tucked into corners. A mix of the young and old, students, teachers and adults, they had come to hear from Emily Dickinson, to catch a few words from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Naomi Shihab Nye. They had come to witness the first Haywood County district Poetry Out Loud competition, where 15 high school students stepped, for a minute, out of their own lives and channel the heavy hitters of poetry, both living and dead.

It’s all a part of the national Poetry Out Loud program, a poetry recitation competition now in its sixth year that brings high-school students across the country into the world of spoken-word poetry.

The Haywood competition was a culmination of competitions held in classrooms across the county, each English class picking its best performer to send to a school-wide competition, and those winners advancing to the district challenge. The district victor was Tuscola senior Anne Kram, who took the prize for her gripping rendition of Sanctuary by Jean Valentine.

In addition to bragging rights and a basket full of poetry-related swag from local businesses, Kram will now journey to Raleigh in March to go head-to-head with other poetry aficionados from around the state. If she gets as far as the national competition in April, there’s a $20,000 pot up for grabs.

But that’s not why Haywood County’s high schools got involved in the program, said Tuscola High School English teacher and district program coordinator Helen Pollifrone. She said teachers were tipped off to the idea by the Haywood Arts Council, which has supported the program throughout the year. When the school system decided to apply for — and subsequently won — a two-day poetry workshop with Haywood County poet Michael Beadle, the spark of excitement for poetry lit in their students, Pollifrone said.

“That’s what really got the kids excited about the whole recitation thing,” said Pollifrone. “When this first started, we thought we might have a couple of students. And all of us were really surprised at how many students were just thrilled to do it. And picked poems that are tough.”

Although sending a student to the state competition is exciting for the district’s teachers, Pollifrone said the best outcome was that ardor for learning and poetic expression that it kindled in many students.

“I think they got a whole new appreciation for poetry,” Pollifrone said.  “So many of our students thought of poetry as something they had to read, something they didn’t feel connected to.”

But now, she said, students are already coming to her discussing what poems they’ll select for next year’s competition.

This renewal of interest in poetry is one of the main aims of the national Poetry Out Loud program, which is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. Poetry has been creeping back into the mainstream cultural consciousness thanks to the slam poetry movement and the raging popularity of hip-hop music. Poetry Out Loud was born on the coattails of that success, created to inspire students not only to love poetry but to love performance and conquer the fear of public speaking.

The program not only offers a venue for competition but gives teachers a wealth of curriculum and lesson-planning resources to back up the short recitations with real knowledge. Help like this, said Pollifrone, is one of the best things the program has offered them. To be successful, she said, students don’t just have to hone their performance skills, they have to really know their poet, must truly learn about their poem.

“It wasn’t just standing up there and reading a poem,” said Pollifrone. “You had to recite it, so you had to memorize it. They really, really had to know their poems to get up and do that. They had to get to know their poem, they had to get to know their author in order to really put the voice to it.”

And, she said, some of the most successful students were also some of the most surprising.

“Some of the students that got up just did these dramatic recitations,” she said. “We were shocked. Some kids who normally aren’t the leaders in the classroom academically, it allowed them to shine in a different light.”

For most of students, the competition is now over, but they’re still so excited about it that they’re already looking to next year’s competition, asking how they can improve and scanning the Poetry Out Loud eligible poem lists for the perfect piece. And Pollifrone said that, if for that alone, the program is worth keeping.

“That, to me, is a success,” she laughed,  “if it has kids wanting to go out and read poetry.”


Haywood students taking part:
Students from the Haywood Early College program, Pisgah High School, and Tuscola High School participated. Contestants included Ellis Forga (THS); Nicole Garrison (HEC); Kayla Ginley (THS); Mitchell Griffin (THS); Katie Harris (PHS); Ann Kram (THS); Ashley Lee (PHS); Kayleigh McAlister (HEC); Kaity Messer (PHS); Nick Messer (PHS): Caleb Pulliam (HEC); Katie Putnam (PHS); Ben Sears (THS); Jeffrey Shook (PHS); Ananda Shuckstes (HEC); Georgia Simson (THS); Sarah Sisk (THS); and Kate Stone (THS).

Road crews ready for winter

Eight inches. 10 inches. 12 inches. Wintry mix. Ice. Snow.

If the winter of 2009-2010 was characterized by anything, it was that word: snow. In Western North Carolina, a record winter blasted citizens across the region with barrages of snow and icy winds for months on end, disrupting school, blocking roads and generally making a mess of a region unaccustomed to the deep chill of snowed-in winters that are usually the sole preserve of our unfortunate neighbors to the west and north.

So as this winter begins to settle in, the region is tentatively gearing up for another season of icy assault as the first few flurries begin to fall.

At Division 14 of the N.C. Department of Transportation, they’re taking a proactive approach, trying to beat the storms to as many punches as possible. Though many in the state and nation depleted their stocks of that all-important salt mixture that makes snowy roads passable, Mark Gibbs, the division’s maintenance engineer, proudly reports that he and his crews made their salt stores last through the winter, if only just.

They were scrambling to keep up with demand, said Gibbs, “because of the amount of storms that we had back-to-back and the amount of time that we had to spend doing snow and ice removal operations.”

But he is confident that, if they made it through last year, they can do it again.

“We paid contractors to truck salt in from as far away as Fayetteville,” said Gibbs. “Last winter is one of the worst winters that I recall in my DOT career in the last 17 years, and if we don’t run out of salt in a situation like that, I don’t think that we will.”

For the transportation department, he said, the goal this year is to get out early, laying down salt brine on the road as soon as they get wind of coming weather. This not only keeps the snow and ice from sticking, it saves money and precious salt, using a liquefied form to stretch it further.

Then, when the weather does hit, he’ll have crews out working the road 24 hours a day in two, 12-hour shifts until everything is clear.

“We have had some times when our folks have had to work 30, 40 straight days in a row, so it’s quite an event for us to try and stay ahead of it when you have multiple storms, back-to-back like we had last year,” Gibbs said.

Especially with rigorous standards like those that DOT personnel must meet. The state mandates that roads on what the department calls the “statewide tier,” which are interstates such as I-40 in Haywood County, must be cleared within 12 hours of a storm. According to Gibbs, that means that “once the last flake of snow has fallen, we have 12 hours.” They get 24 hours to clear regional tier roads like N.C. 107 and U.S. 441 and 72 hours to clear secondary roads that have the four-number, state-road designation. And while that may seem like a somewhat less-than-exacting standard, Gibbs said it’s still pretty tough when applied to every road in their 10-county coverage area.

“If you think about a large snow event where you get a foot of snow, three days – 72 hours – is really not a lot of time to hit all our roads, including secondary roads,” said Gibbs. But, he adds, they hit the mark during all but one storm last year, so he’s got high hopes for this winter.


School days or snow days?

It isn’t just the roads that suffer when weather turns wintry, though. Schools are some of the hardest hit by snow and ice, and after the salvo of storms that was last winter, it seemed that the regions students spent more time watching for school closures than actually at school.

That tricky scenario, said Bill Nolte, assistant superintendent at Haywood County Schools, is one that school officials across Western North Carolina spend a lot of their time dealing with, especially faced with the prospect of more dire winters to come. In Haywood County, their experiences last year prompted them to change tack, adding some flexibility to their bad-weather response plan.

“The biggest thing that we did was add a three-hour delay schedule,” said Nolte. “That’s the most substantive change.”

It will give officials another tool in their bad-weather arsenal, a bridge between the traditional two-hour delay and full-on school closure.

In Jackson and Macon counties, they long ago split the county into several districts that follow geographical lines. That allows students truly affected by weather to stay safe and stay home, while those at lower altitudes who may see nary a flake on the ground can enjoy a normal school day.

“For inclement weather, we found years ago it was better to separate the two [districts],” said Steve Jones, assistant superintendent at Jackson County Schools, “because when we said ‘Jackson County schools: two-hour delay,’ Smoky Mountain district could have come.”

Macon County did the same thing, giving their zones in Nantahala and Highlands virtual autonomy over their transportation, allowing them to close their schools without affecting the broader district.

“We stretch in such a wide direction north to south, so it can be snowing in Nantahala and sunshining in Franklin,” said Macon County Schools Superintendent Dan Brigman. “It’s very tricky in this area of the state because of our variations in elevation.”

Which is why, given the wildly fluctuating Western weather, schools in the region have been sending a vehement stream of protests and requests to Raleigh, asking that control of the calendar be put back in local hands.

“We try to build more snow days into the calendar, but there’s only so many days you can build,” said Swain Superintendent Bob Marr. “I have done everything I know to do to get that calendar law changed.”

His county was lucky, he said, to be granted a calendar waiver that allows them carry on with school past the state deadline next year. Other school systems were not so fortunate and are, this year, balancing safety and class time within calendar constraints that don’t match winter reality of WNC.

“There’s a lot about the calendar that’s completely out of our control,” said Haywood’s Nolte. “One of the things that we have advocated with the state legislature is that the state allocate “just-weather days,” days that are just for weather.”

Because now, schools facing tough weather have to use days other, more temperate districts get to use for professional development, special programs and make-up testing.

“That’s inherently unfair and a huge disadvantage academically,” laments Nolte, who, like Marr, wants control of the calendar back in local hands.

For now, though, they’ll have to stick with what they’ve got – sending out patrols in the morning’s wee hours, checking out roads and, like the DOT, trying to stay ahead of the weather.

In Haywood County, they run on a basic formula: if more than 10 percent of bus routes are blocked, schools close. They delay if the forecast predicts a morning warm-up, which, Nolte realizes, can make for some unhappy parents in the county’s snowless locales.

“We hope that people understand that we have a large county geographically,” Nolte said. “It looked very different at my house this morning than it did at my office, and they’re less than 10 miles apart.”

In Jackson, Macon and Swain, they just take the call, in consultation with emergency services and local law enforcement, and, if possible, only close affected districts.

But though they’re pressed to get in the required classroom face time, Macon Superintendent Brigman said that, even if worse winters are to come, they’ll always put safety first and deal with the calendar later.

“We can always make up a school day,” said Brigman. “We can’t replace someone’s health or their life.”

Going hungry: Many in region, particularly children, are doing without for Thanksgiving

It’s Thursday afternoon, and Amy Grimes has her head in a freezer digging around for a few things to add to the cardboard boxes at her feet that are already filled with food of various descriptions. A few yards away, volunteers scurry back and forth, bringing food to guests at the many table scattered throughout what was once a living room. With its cozy setting, plethora of set tables, and the inviting smell of chili wafting from the kitchen of this old house, it would be easy to mistake the scene for a mom-and-pop restaurant gearing up for the dinner rush.

But it isn’t. This is Sylva’s Community Table, where those in need can stop by four evenings a week to enjoy a hot meal, friendly company and — if they need it — some extra food to get them through. And most of all, says Grimes, handing one of the now-full boxes to a customer, they can do it with dignity.

While the Community Table has long been a busy spot in Jackson County, Grimes says her customers have changed over the last few years. As the recession has deepened,  for many the long-promised light at the end of the tunnel has not come.

As recently as last year, the Community Table hosted up 40 dinner guests each night; now they’re serving around 100 people per night on a regular basis.

“For the entire year of 2009, we served 10,335 meals,” says Grimes. “This year, through October, we’ve served over 18,000. We’re going to more than double [by the end of the year].”

The requests to the food pantry have increased as well. Grimes said she received about one request a month for take-home food two years ago, if that. Now she gets up to 80 requests for boxes every month.

Lisa James, director of Haywood Christian Ministries, echoes those sentiments. Her staff and volunteers busily pack food boxes in the basement of their Waynesville building, working to keep up with the 60-to-80-box-a-day demand they’re currently seeing.

“Last month we had 315 families in October alone,” James says.  “I don’t remember a month that we’ve had that many people.”

That change in volume has also been accompanied by a change in clientele. Historically, organizations like the Community Table and Haywood Christian Ministries have served the traditionally disenfranchised — the elderly living on fixed incomes, those with physical or mental disabilities, the long-term homeless. Now, however, working families are beginning to represent a greater portion of the needy in Western North Carolina.

It’s a fact that is reflected across the region in the percentage of kids who receive free and reduced lunch at school.


Free lunches: a barometer of the times

In Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, more than half of public school students are getting their school meals free or at a reduced price. Jackson and Macon have been above 50 percent for the last few years: Jackson had right at 50 percent in the program in 2009, and it’s now climbed to just over 55 percent, while Macon is holding steady with 59 percent of its students getting free or cheaper food, up from 56 percent at the end of the 2008-2009 school year. Haywood County saw that statistic climb above the 50 percent for the first time this fall. The system now has 52 percent of its student body enrolled in the federal program, a 10 percent increase from just six years ago.

Free and reduced lunch numbers are often used as an indicator of how many children are living in poverty, but what, exactly, do they mean?

To get free lunch through the federal government’s National School Lunch Program, a family must be living at or below 130 percent of the national poverty level. For a family of four, that’s $28,665 this year. To get a reduced-price lunch, which amounts to 40 cents instead of the undiscounted price of $2, total family income has to be between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level. This year, that’s anywhere between $28,666 and $40,793 for a family of four.

Lynn Harvey, Child Nutrition Director for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, says that these numbers aren’t isolated in the western part of the state. Children across the state have been hard hit by the slouching economy and depend on the food they get at school.

“Since late 2008, we’ve seen about at 10 percent increase in the number of students who qualify for free and reduced price meals,” says Harvey. “North Carolina now ranks second in the number of children and adults who are food insecure. That essentially means that these are children who literally do not know where their next meal will come from. That makes [school meals] a real lifeline for them.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, around 15 percent of the nation — 17.5 million people — are struggling to put food on the table, which translates into scores of children depending on outside sources of food to stave off their hunger.

Ginger Moore, the cafeteria supervisor at Jonathan Valley Elementary School near Maggie Valley, has seen this truth firsthand. She and her fellow cafeteria workers have noticed that, especially after long holiday weekends, many students come back desperately hungry.

“When a 6-year-old can eat four bowls of cereal, you know they’re pretty hungry,” she says. That, in part, is why the school has teamed up with Asheville’s Manna Food Bank to offer what they call Manna Packs. It’s a simple pack of kid-friendly food, like instant macaroni, that can feed a child through a weekend where they might not otherwise find a hot meal in front of them.

Back in Jackson County, they’re doing the same. Kids that teachers, counselors, cafeteria or social workers notice may need some food at home are getting sent away each Friday with a few things to sustain them through the weekend.


Poverty strikes children hardest

While the number of children slipping into poverty and hunger may be on the rise, the disproportionate effect of poverty on kids is nothing new. Dr. Lydia Aydlett is a psychologist specializing in children who has been working with kids and families since the 1970s. According to Aydlett, when the poverty rate increases, kids are the most at-risk.

“Children are going to be poorer than the population as a whole,” says Aydlett, and this is particularly true for Western North Carolina. Haywood County, for example, has a relatively low poverty rate of 14.5 percent, which includes everybody, from the nursery to the nursing home. But for the county’s kids — everyone under 18 — just over 23 percent of them live in poverty.

Macon County is much the same. They have a pretty low overall poverty rate — about 13 percent, the lowest among Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties — but nearly 24 percent of children there are in poverty, the highest among those four. This means that, while everybody suffers when a recession drags on, unemployment remains lackluster, and the available balance in nearly everyone’s bank account is dwindling, the consequences for the youngest are exponentially more dire.

“Living in poverty has some pretty grave consequences for kids,” says Aydlett. “In general, they’re likely to have poor education, they’re likely to have greater health problems, they’re likely to have lower cognitive skills, and that’s children across the board living in poverty. For little kids, the youngest kids, they’re the most vulnerable because their brains are still forming. As their brains are forming, they’re dependent on a good environment and good nurturing for them to reach their potential. And when kids are in poverty, there are huge family stressors.”

Being food insecure, then, isn’t just bad for the body, it’s bad for the whole child, says Aydlett, because parents are more likely to succumb to those ‘family stressors,’ to be more concerned with keeping children fed and clothed than tracking or nurturing their development. When a family is working just to survive, there is no time or energy left on which to thrive.

“Child development goes way down the list of important things when parents are worried about where the next meal’s coming from or how they’re going to pay the heating bill,” says Aydlett. She says research has borne out the theory that parents who are more financially secure are able to devote more time to their child’s development.

“There are all kinds of studies about language differences of parents who are in poverty and parents who are not,” explains Aydlett. “Parents who live in poverty tend to give children orders or directions, where middle-class families, they’re more likely to say, ‘well what did you do at school today, let’s talk about this.’ There is more conversation, more elaboration, more attention.”


Study reveals upside of economic security

A 2003 Duke University study done in Cherokee after following the casino opening found much the same result. Researchers discovered that, because of the small stipend provided by casino returns, parents were spending more time keeping up with their kids. The kids, in turn, acted out less and had fewer behavior problems, both at home and at school. Even if it didn’t have any effect at all on the parents’ lifestyle — workplace hours didn’t decrease, wages didn’t go up — that small extra measure of financial safety led to great changes for their kids.

“Exploratory analysis suggested that the quality of parental supervision was linked to parents’ sense of time pressure,” researchers reported in a university newsletter at the study’s release. “Although the casino income did not lead parents to cut down on their working hours, it did seem to help them feel less ‘pressured,’ which may have helped them to devote more attention to what their teenagers were doing. Moving out of poverty was associated with a decrease in frequency of psychiatric symptoms over the ensuing four years.”

However, Aydlett notes, being poor doesn’t, by default, deprive children of the nurturing they need to develop into healthy adults.

“It’s parent involvement. What really seemed to happen [in the Duke study] is that the money allowed the parents to be more involved, to monitor more, so you’re going to have bad outcomes, you’re going to have kids who are in trouble even in very wealthy families if they don’t have input and don’t have those relationships.

“If you’re poor but have a tight-knit family in a healthy community, even though you’re poor you’re likely to be OK,” she said.

That combination is what many programs in the community — like Head Start and even the free and reduced lunch program — aim to provide to low-income families.


Life on the edge of poverty

Charles and Karen Tucker say their family is benefiting from such programs. The Tuckers are regulars at Sylva’s Community Table, and they say it’s been a lifeline for them in raising their five children.

They’ve lived for years on the edge of sustenance, always working but never with much extra. But when the recession hit, Karen’s hours were cut at Roses, where she’s worked for 10 years, and the help they’d always occasionally taken from the Community Table became vital.

“We pretty much just live paycheck to paycheck,” she says. She is at the Community Table tonight, having dinner with her husband, still in her ‘Roses’ uniform polo and khaki skirt. Finishing her last few bites of cole slaw, she praises the efforts of organizations like the Community Table that have helped her family get by.

“If it wasn’t for them, we couldn’t make it at all,” says Tucker. She says that she and her husband, with help from their church and other community organizations, have raised their children without a poverty mindset. Although scraping by was tough, and continues to be, she has high hopes for her kids’ success. Her eldest son is in the military in Oklahoma, her oldest daughter is happily married and living in Georgia with three children of her own, and their 17-year-old daughter is currently investigating colleges.

“I’m really pushing my girls to go to college, because I don’t want them to end up like I have,” Tucker says. “It ain’t easy, I can tell you that. I mean, we’ve managed all these years, but it’s just a big struggle.”

Part of the challenge for groups trying to help families like the Tuckers is overcoming the stigma associated with asking for help, and Lynn Hunter with the state’s child nutrition program says that’s one of their greatest goals: getting food to kids who need it without exposing them to shame or ridicule.

“For any human being, when their self-esteem is compromised because they’re participating in a food assistance program, that’s a very painful thing,” she says. To combat that, Hunter and her team are pushing a breakfast-in-the-classroom program in schools statewide. If offers a low-cost breakfast to kids who don’t qualify for free or reduced price, and a discounted or free breakfast to those who do. But, Hunter says, it does much more to promote togetherness and health among all students, while quietly giving the hungry just what they need.

“It helps to remove some of the stigma associated with being the only child who arrives early to have breakfast at school,” says Hunter. “We’re trying to create an environment where all children participate, all children can enjoy.”

Schools are already halfway to this goal, no longer publicizing children who receive free or reduced lunch and offering whole-family applications for assistance, so older, more independent students don’t have to ask for themselves.

Amy Grimes of the Community Table is aiming for the same goal, trying to give help that isn’t a package deal, with shame and exclusion thrown in for free.

“It’s hard to come and ask for help anyway, so we want this to be the most welcoming, dignified environment,” says Grimes.

Many of her newer clients, she says, have never had to ask for help before and feel uncomfortable coming in. They are still working but aren’t making a living wage, and it’s those people who feel most heavily the stigma of taking help.

“They apologize for needing help, but everybody needs it sometimes,” says Grimes.

In Haywood County, Lisa James sees the same thing.

“We have seen an increase in the people who are unemployed who, in the past, have been giving to us,” says James. “Now they’re coming back and having to ask for help themselves.

“We’re seeing people who are working at $7 an hour, who were making 10 and 12. Minimum wage just doesn’t cut it.”

So as the economy continues to prove sluggish, organizations like the Community Table and Haywood Christian Ministries are striving to navigate these new waters, this paradigm shift from generational poverty to situational poverty that’s creeping steadily across greater parts of the community.

Aydlett firmly believes, even if there is no economic turnaround in sight, that the community can still help even the poorest children succeed if they are vigilant.

“Children show resilience if somebody — it doesn’t have to be parents — but if somebody really loves them, really thinks they’re the best thing since sliced bread,” she says. “We need to make sure kids have connections to grandparents, aunts or uncles, neighbors, somebody that can help provide love and support for those kids. Everybody needs that kind of person.”


How you can help

In Haywood County:

Haywood Christian Ministries

150 Branner Avenue

Waynesville, NC 28786


Donations taken: food, clothing, financial gifts

Volunteers needed? Yes


In Jackson County:

The Community Table

127 Bartlett Street

Sylva, NC 28779


Donations taken: food and financial gifts

Volunteers needed? Yes


In Swain County:

Bryson City Food Pantry

c/o Bryson City Presbyterian Church

311 Everett Street

Bryson City, NC 28713



In Macon County:


130 Bidwell Street

Franklin, NC 28734


Donations taken: food, clothing, financial gifts

Volunteers needed? Yes

Ridding schools of bullying will require changing culture

By Raymond Turpin • Guest Columnist

Bullying, unfortunately, has always existed in the American school systems and it continues to be a pervasive problem. Many historically have dismissed it as a schoolyard rite of passage or just a part of growing up.  However, now that these behaviors have been more closely studied, we have learned that bullying is unnecessary, damaging and can cause negative long-term consequences not only for the victim but for the bully as well.  

Bullying is deliberate acts of physical or psychological harassment or intimidation. These acts occur repeatedly over time and are carried out by an individual or a group upon another, usually weaker, individual. Direct bullying (favored by boys) includes taunting, threatening, hitting, stealing and property damage. Indirect bullying (favored by girls) includes spreading rumors and enforcing social isolation.

However, direct verbal bullying is still the most common form of bullying for both boys and girls. With this electronically plugged-in generation, bullying has spread into cyberspace where threatening e-mails, slanderous postings and sexual harassment are frequently used to intimidate and control others. Most victims of bullying suffer in relative isolation and research has shown that the majority of these children feel helpless and believe that reporting to adults is ineffective in stopping the bullying and can sometimes lead to worse bullying.  

The media have recently reported stories about adolescents who committed suicide because of the effects of being bullied. These victims were often intimidated, excluded and harassed for differences in weight, size, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation. In fact, studies show that gay and lesbian teens are three times more likely to report being bullied than their heterosexual peers and are two to three times more likely to die by suicide.  

For many victims of bullying, there are serious potential consequences such as depression, low self-esteem, school avoidance, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse and poor academic and job performance. Bullies who may operate unchecked for years are at risk for not learning appropriate skills for dealing with their problems effectively and with proper respect for others. In one study, 60 percent of those characterized as bullies in grades 6-9 had at least one criminal conviction by age 24.  

So how should we deal with bullying in the schools? How can we ensure that all children can attend school each day and work to their potential in a supportive environment that is free of intimidation and fear? The majority of school-based bullying interventions have simply focused on the bully and the victim and they have been woefully inadequate for addressing the problem. Bullying is a problem that occurs within a social context, so if intervening with the bully and the victim has been ineffective, it might make sense to try and address the social context in which the bullying is taking place.

Changing the culture of a school will take time and patience, but it should begin with a school having a clearly understandable school-wide policy against bullying that is clearly explained to the students. In addition, it will be important for the school to consistently follow this policy. Educating students and parents about bullying and its destructive effects through parent meetings, classroom discussions and group projects will be necessary.  

However, the most important piece of this culture change will be to empower bystanders. Bystanders are usually present at most bullying incidents. A recent study found that peers were present in 85 percent of bullying incidents, but only 10 percent actually intervened even though two-thirds of children report that they know they should intervene. Empower bystanders to speak up against bullying because being questioned and confronted by peers will take away a bully’s sense of power and control. Empower victims to speak up for themselves firmly and assertively. Teach students that the bully is someone who has a problem managing their behavior and the victim is someone they can protect. If one bystander could be courageous enough to take a stand against bullying, others would follow.  

Of course schools can only do so much to teach a child about respecting others, tolerating individual differences and standing up for those who are weaker or are being victimized. It really begins at home. Talk to your child but more importantly listen to them.  

(Dr. Raymond Turpin is a licensed psychologist and the clinical director and co-owner of Haywood County Psychological Services which provides mental health services to the students and families of the Haywood County Schools. He has been treating child and adolescent mental health issues for 21 years with his specialty being adolescents, trauma, and developmental issues. He has been married for 21 years and has two children, four cats, one dog and fish.  He continues to believe in the inherent goodness of people.)

Haywood schools chart course for future

This fall, while Haywood County students are focused on homework, football, the opposite sex and the many other preoccupations of youth, their teachers and administrators are mapping a plan to make them more successful and competitive when they leave Haywood’s hallowed halls of learning.

2010 is a year for Long Range Strategic Planning in the school system, and if you gave only a cursory glance to the state of schools in North Carolina, you’d think they have their work cut out for them.

Haywood County Schools alone have seen $5.2 million in funding cuts since January 2009. Instead of increasing teacher assistants as planned, they are losing them left, right and center to lack of funding, struggling to keep hold of the 68 that remain. Meanwhile, the economy outside the school budget has worsened as well, and more than half of Haywood County students are now eligible for free or reduced lunch, a measure the school uses to gauge poverty levels among its students.

But Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte said he doesn’t look at it like that. He knows that the increase in poverty and need among students and the decrease in funding is — and will continue to be — a challenge.

“We know our population is changing,” Nolte said “We know that our free and reduced lunch rate has changed about 10 percent in the last 11 years.”

But he’s also optimistic that the changes that have happened since the last long-range planning sessions in 2005 have not all been for the worse.

“The world really is different,” Nolte said. “I mean we’re changing at a very rapid rate. It’s just amazing. When these recommendations were made (in 2005) I had dialup at my house and could not get cable. I hope the (new) recommendations are different, because we don’t want recommendations for 2010, we want people to think about ‘OK, what’s it going to be like in 15 years or 17 years and what should we be striving for?’”

To do that, Nolte and his team have identified five areas they want to plan for, and then called on the community to help them map out the steps to get there in the long term.

The school system asked anyone who was interested — parents, community leaders, business people and just interested residents — to volunteer for committees that would spend anywhere from weeks to months suggesting what they think schools and students need to be doing in the future.

They try to stay within the state objectives and keep the school’s mission statement in mind, but Nolte said school administrators try to give the committees free-rein in dreaming up their recommendations, hoping to stir up innovation and creative thinking that wouldn’t happen under strictly-imposed guidelines.

But Knox Hardin, the school system’s testing director and co-chair of the committee tasked with producing globally competitive students, said that the state of affairs in the county, state and nation has put something of a damper on how far recommendations can go.

“Five years ago, we were not in the economic situation that we’re in now,” said Hardin, who co-chaired a similar committee during the 2005 planning process. “We have been asked to try and at least give half of our recommendations that we make that would not be dependent on funding. Five years ago, we could look pie-in-the-sky.”

Besides wholesale changes in the economy and the system’s funding base, this year’s plan will likely be vastly different from 2005 because the school system itself is moving in a new direction. Just over two years ago, the system adopted a new mission that places passion and productivity at the heart of all they do. And Nolte hopes that the committees will keep this in focus when they’re looking into the future.

“One of the things we talk to (the committees) about is as you’re developing recommendations, please remember our missions,” said Nolte. “Is this something we would fight for, lobby for, advocate for, spend for? Is it a productive way to do it? Does it promote student success in some objective measure that we have for students?”

Looking back at the 2005 recommendations, some did clearly fit those criteria. Out of 20 recommendations that the school system adopted, it only fully achieved nine, which included a major reduction in dropout rates, gym remodels at both Pisgah and Tuscola high schools, and beefing up technology education, both in quantity and quality.

Two of the recommendations — increase teacher assistants in grade K-3 and build an additional middle school — weren’t met at all. In fact, they actually lost teacher assistants and are struggling to keep the ones they have, although Nolte said this is simply a matter of money, or the lack of it.  

Of the other nine goals, all were met partially, but to varying degrees. Some, like activity bus replacement, were halted with the budget drop. Others, such as computer, router and server replacement have been nearly met, with a good computer replacement cycle in place with only a lag in server replacement.

Still others, however, were sort-of met but lack a good bit before they could credibly be called successful. For example, the directive to provide staff development focusing on the Spanish-speaking population included only one summer “staff development” and a 30-minute refresher course, with a few “scheduled meetings” tacked on for good measure.

Hardin said that now, when the committees meet, they look back at these, assessing where they succeeded, where they failed and what failures should be tackled again.

“The ideal goal is to come up with suggestions that can help improve academic performance and have future-ready graduates that are ready to go into the workplace or ready to go into the next step beyond high school,” Hardin said. “We need to have our kids prepared to do the best at whatever they do when they leave school.”

Nolte echoes this sentiment, saying that he hopes the plan will provide a path towards making all of Haywood County’s schools better in what may continue to be very tough times.

“The recommendations are a real, tangible guiding beacon. They give real direction to your decision making,” said Nolte. “We really do believe that everything’s important. We really do believe that you’re not a great school system if you only do one or two things well and other things are really crummy.”

Jackson County schools hope for no more job cuts

On Monday evening, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners met with leaders from Jackson County Schools to talk about next year’s budget, but any outstanding fears had already been put to rest.

County Manager Ken Westmoreland said because the county has spent 12 percent less than it budgeted for the current fiscal year, he didn’t anticipate cuts in any county departments.

“I do not anticipate any furloughs, layoffs, or losses of service,” Westmoreland said. “We’re pretty much just going to tread water.”

Jackson County Public School Superintendent Sue Nations said her staff had already submitted capital outlay and operating requests to Westmoreland for consideration. The school district is asking for a 2 percent increase in funding to offset increases in insurance premiums and deep cuts in state discretionary funds.

Westmoreland said the county would evaluate the school budget request in line with its other funding obligations.

“It’s not that they would be treated any differently than any county department or agency we fund,” Westmoreland said. “I’m not anticipating any cuts or expansions.”

For her part, Nations was confident that the county would come through for the school district, but she expressed concern about Gov. Perdue’s proposed budget.

“The county will give us the amount of money we had last year, and I hope they’ll give us the 2 percent increase,” Nations said. “But the county can’t pick up what the state won’t give us.”

Perdue’s 2010 budget calls for $135 million of cuts in addition to the $304.8 million worth of discretionary cuts already contained in the budget the General Assembly approved last year for the 2010-11 fiscal year. Overall, the governor’s budget calls for an additional 3.8 percent in cuts plus another $90 million in General Fund reductions to the K-12 budget.

According to the North Carolina School Boards Association, districts across North Carolina had 16,253 fewer state paid public education jobs, including 4,701 fewer state paid classroom teachers, in the 2009-10 academic year. The additional $135 million in discretionary cuts could mean as many as 2,430 additional teaching positions could be eliminated next year.

Nations said her district already employs 95 fewer people than it did in May 2008. She said she does not intend to cut any positions this year, because she hasn’t replaced employees that have left or retired.

“I know we have to do our part. I really do,” Nations said. “But there’s a point at which it’s going to affect the classroom.”

Nations said the district would still benefit from federal stimulus money it received last year. Districts were instructed to use the money over a 27-month period, and last year the stimulus funds offset state cuts nearly dollar for dollar.

No relief for crowded schools

Despite using every nook and cranny available, Swain County schools are still struggling to track down classroom space for its exploding student population.

The number of students at Swain County High School has shot up so dramatically that the school has outgrown its auditorium and must now hold two assemblies instead of one on every occasion.

“That’s a time issue, and sometimes, a money issue,” said Regina Mathis, principal of Swain County High, which often has to pay speakers double the price.

In the 2002-2003 school year, 1,679 students attended the county’s schools. By 2008-2009, that number that had grown to 1,840.

Swain County High School shows the biggest rise in students, with an increase of 110 students in the last six years.

The high school has tried to accommodate that growth by asking four teachers to share classroom space. It has converted an auto mechanics classroom into a regular classroom, even using the hallway that leads up to the room as lab space, and transformed an equipment storage room next to the gymnasium into a small classroom.

What used to be a student lounge with couches is now office space for support staff. Where chorus students formerly practiced singing, history classes have taken their place.

One math teacher and his students must trek out to a doublewide from the school each day, cutting time spent in class.

“That’s a little inconvenient for kids if it’s raining,” said Mathis.

And the problem is not limited to just the high school. Elementary schools in Swain have even held art and music classes on stages in the past.

Running out of time

The problem is not new. A committee was formed to assess building needs in January 2007, and several solutions have been discussed. But with little funding to implement the solutions, Swain schools have been left struggling.

In 2009, Swain County qualified for a federal school bond program that gives lenders a tax break for funding school construction. But the county has been unable to lock down any lenders so far, County Manager Kevin King said.

According to the committee’s plans, Swain West Elementary will ideally be first to get new classrooms. Next in line would be Swain East Elementary.

The committee’s plans also call for a new $25 to $30 million high school to be built on a 50-acre tract the county purchased a few years ago for that purpose near the current high school site.

Meanwhile, the middle school would be cut down to only seventh and eighth grades and move into the old high school. The old middle school could then become a third elementary school for the county.

Mathis said the committee has looked at installing $1 million or $2 million additions, but such small expansions would only be a stopgap measure.

“Why put that in if we’re going to have $25 million for a new high school?” asked Mathis. “Sure, I’d love to have more classrooms, but in the long run, it doesn’t make sense.”

Sam Pattillo, facilities director for Swain County’s schools, said this is only a preliminary plan, however, not something that’s been set in stone.

“It’s a start for discussion,” said Pattillo.

King pointed out that building the high school alone might result in a whopping 15 cent tax increase to cover $1.9 million each year in bond payments.

Rather than employ a piecemeal approach right now, King recommends tackling the entire problem in 2018, when the school system’s current debt of about $900,000 will be mostly paid off.

“It’s not attainable right now,” said King. “If it’s not attainable, then there’s really no need to pursue it.”

But Mathis said eight years might be a long time to wait.

“Looking over the last eight years, we’ve grown 27 percent,” said Mathis. “What if within the next eight years, we grow 27 more?”

The county will soon begin reaping dividends from the North Shore Road cash settlement. At a minimum, the county will receive around $800,000 a year in interest, and it could grow much larger if the federal government follows through on paying the full settlement it has promised.

The interest off the cash settlement fund could potentially be set aside for school construction.

But school board member Jerry McKinney said he’s concerned about tying up the North Shore money in a reoccurring expense like bond payments.

“I’d rather see other ways of funding construction needs,” said McKinney. “But education should get the lion’s share [of the settlement], I believe.”

Other options for getting the new high school built before 2018 include holding a bond referendum to ask the people whether they’d support a tax increase to build the high school. It’s doubtful that such a major tax increase would pass in Swain or anywhere else, however.

McKinney, who is running for county commissioner, said having such a small tax base in Swain always poses a challenge for school funding.

But McKinney understands space needs in Swain County schools are a pressing issue and new that facilities are necessary.

McKinney pointed out that Swain County still had the same number of gymnasiums it had when he was a boy.

“The old one at the middle school is 70 plus years old,” said McKinney. “We keep renovating, we keep adding to it, trying to keep it up. Because of that there is a need in this community.”

Macon tax hike in store to pay for new elementary school

Macon County’s schools will get a long-awaited upgrade, but its taxpayers are going to have to pay extra for it.

County commissioners voted last Tuesday to raise the property tax rate by one-and-a-half cents to build a $15 million elementary school. The new tax rate will go into effect next year. The move will also fund several smaller school construction projects contained in a 10-year capital plan.

County Manager Jack Horton said the plan was a conservative way to accomplish much-needed school improvements.

“These are what I would call essential and necessary construction projects following the long-term school renovation plan,” Horton said. “There aren’t any frills here. This is as conservative as we could come up with.”

The construction of North Macon School will consolidate the two existing elementary schools of Cowee and Iotla, in addition to accommodating around 70 students now attending East Franklin Elementary.

As a result of the consolidation, Cowee’s grade school will go out of service and the current building at Iotla will be razed so the new school can be built in its place.

In November 2007, the public narrowly voted down a $42 million bond issue for school construction. Plans called for building two new schools — one for grades K-4 and one for grades five and six — and doing away with three smaller schools of Cullasaja, Iotla and Cowee.

The bond measure failed by a near miss, but the school board and county commissioners decided to move forward with the construction anyway. A fifth-and sixth-grade school and the expansion at East Franklin were completed, but the new North Macon elementary was temporarily put on hold due to budget shortfalls related to the recession.

The commissioners’ decision to fund the construction of the North Macon School through an increase in property taxes also included plans to allocate $1.8 million for the Nantahala K-12 school, to be obtained through a low-interest loan program made available through the stimulus package. The county will also move $1.3 million from school reserve to fund repairs and renovations at Franklin High School.

Commissioners acknowledged that raising taxes during a recession was risky. But with construction costs at an all-time low and the availability of attractive interest rates through federal stimulus loans, the county’s remaining school facilities needs could be accomplished at an affordable price tag.

“The need has been there, and construction costs are at an all-time low,” Horton said. “The stimulus money and the low-interest loans make it attractive to do these projects now.”

Gambling on the economy

Commissioner Jim Davis, who represented the county board alongside Chairman Ronnie Beale on the school liaison committee, said the vote to raise taxes was a calculated risk.

“It is a gamble. We’re gambling that the economy is not going to get worse, and we don’t know that,” Davis said. “Macon County is in an extremely good position to weather the storm, and I don’t want to jeopardize that. There’s a reason why we have a good fund balance and that’s because our commissioners have historically been careful about how they spend the county’s money.”

School Superintendent Dan Brigman said the funding plan approved by the board will make the district safer and provide a better learning environment. With the construction of the North Macon School, children across the district won’t be limited in their choices of school because of capacity issues.

“It’s basically going to set up a situation where there is a school choice option with capacity not being a barrier,” Brigman said.

In addition, Brigman said the district would save $250,000 per year in operating costs by consolidating the schools, as well as making it free of mobile classrooms for the first time in years.

Brigman said the board’s vote last week was the culmination of years of effort by the school liaison committee that he regards as a triumph of cooperation between the school board and the county. The school liaison committee incorporated two members from the school board, two from the county board, and financial and executive officers from the district and the county.

“There has been a partnership existing between the two boards that is like nothing I’ve experienced in the six counties and two states I’ve served as an educator,” said Brigman.

But while the vote was unanimous in the end, a lively debate arose over whether the board was going far enough to improve the county’s school facilities.

Commissioner Bobby Kuppers argued passionately that an additional half cent tax increase could allow the county to renovate the gym and install artificial turf on the football field at Franklin High as well.

Brigman said the 52-year-old gym is too small to accommodate community events and the natural turf field couldn’t take the traffic of year-round use for student and community activities.

“I think we’re gambling that we’re at the bottom of the curve. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking about a cent and a half,” Kuppers said. “The only reason I’m bringing this up is I want the seed to be planted that for a half a cent more we should finish the job.”

Beale replied that while the high school might need the renovations, they weren’t part of the liaison committee’s discussion.

“We have met for four years to figure out a plan that would work and never has anyone mentioned a gym,” said Beale. “I’m not saying it’s not needed. I’m not saying that at all.”

Davis said he was already uncomfortable raising taxes when taxpayers were hurting, and he didn’t believe the athletic facilities should be prioritized the same way as instructional facilities.

“My comfort zone is stretched to go ahead and build this school now to raised taxes 1.5 cents,” Davis said. “We’re trying to make up for a lack of planning in the past.”

More than a number With teacher layoffs, impact of school budget cuts hits home

It’s not an uncommon scene: people rattling a tin can outside Wal-Mart to raise money, whether it’s a cheerleading squad saving up for new uniforms or the Salvation Army bell ringers.

There’s no shortage of good samaritans asking shoppers to ante up for a noble cause here and there, but a group camped out on the Wal-Mart sidewalk in Waynesville last week had a way of stopping people in their tracks.

The Save a Teacher Campaign in Haywood County is aiming to raise enough money to pay the salaries, and thus save the jobs, of the teachers and teacher assistants laid off this summer by Haywood County Schools.

The Haywood County Schools Foundation has already put up enough money from their coffers to save one teacher, and is now challenging the community to save the next one.

“We are looking at this one teacher at a time,” said Steve Brown, the director of the school foundation, a nonprofit that works to support the school system.

Among the donors dipping into their pockets last week was one teacher who herself was laid off.

“Maybe this can help save someone else’s job since I already lost mine,” said Amy Greene, as she pulled a few dollars from her wallet. Greene ran the computer lab at Junaluska Elementary School. She is five months pregnant and has made the decision to stay home rather than find other work, but she feels bad for those who don’t have that luxury.

“I always thought, ‘You know, if I go into this, I will always have a job because there will always be kids to teach,’” Greene said.

Parents, teachers and former teachers were most likely to pitch in during last week’s fund-drive, including Toni Mullany, a former teacher, who is now a social worker. She sees the positive role teachers play in children’s lives.

“When your home life is chaotic, the one stability you have is your teacher,” Mullany said.

Mullany said it is a shame the state is cutting education, but not surprising.

“Children can’t vote. Their voices aren’t heard,” Mullany said.

Parents, of course, do vote and care, said Cynthia Shuford, the president of the PTO at Bethel Elementary. Teachers are a very important influence in her son’s life, she said.

“He is with the teachers as long or longer than he is with us,” Shuford said.


Uphill battle

Brown hopes the effort will soften the blow of state budget cuts. But given the loss of 32 teaching positions in Haywood County — coming straight out of the classroom — the campaign has its work cut out to make a dent in the problem.

“We need, as a community, to pull together and do what we can to help,” Brown said.

And as schools in North Carolina face budget cuts of historic proportions, they need all the help they can get. The state plans to cut public school funding by $236 million for the coming year. Lawmakers were initially toying with far deeper cuts that would have drastically altered the classroom landscape. Backlash, and firm resistence by Governor Beverly Perdue to pass such a budget, led to a tax increase in lieu of the deeper cuts to schools.

Nonetheless, it’s the worst budget situation that longtime school administrators like John Sanderson, who spent 17 years as the principal of Central Elementary School, can remember.

“We’ve had tight budgets, but never a situation like this at all,” Sanderson says. “This is the toughest in my memory.”

The more severe budget cuts intially on the table would have increased class sizes for K-3. Sanderson was relieved that did not come to fruition.

“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,” Sanderson said.

But with possible cutbacks to personnel, making sure there are enough teachers could present its own challenge to school systems.

“Bottom line is, we don’t really have a choice,” said Dan Moore, director of personnel for Macon County Schools. “We’re not going to put 50 kids in an elementary classroom. If there [are] drastic cuts, we’ll have to look elsewhere.”


Last resort

Anne Garrett, superintendent of Haywood County Schools, is well aware of just how tough times are. The Haywood system stands to lose $1.2 million under the proposed state budget. Locally, the system has already faced $1 million in cuts.

“We’ve lost over $2 million, and school hasn’t started,” Garrett says.

The Haywood County school system looked to trim costs everywhere possible — supplies, new buildings, staff development — in order to avoid the most dreaded cuts: staff. It didn’t take long to exhaust every option, since salaries make up the biggest expense to the system.

“It’s hard to squeeze your budget with pens and pencils,” says Dan Moore, finance officer for the neighboring Macon County Schools. “It ends up being people.”

Macon will see a net loss of 14 teachers this school year with a state budget cut of $674,000 and a county budget cut of $200,000. Swain will see a net loss of three positions.

For months, school systems have been in limbo waiting for the state budget to be unveiled. Schools have known they’ll be facing big cuts, but haven’t been certain of exactly how much.

“We’ve heard so many different rumors about the amount, and it’s hard to come up with any concrete plan when there are so many rumors being floated around,” said Moore. “We’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.”

The waiting game forced most school system to keep teachers at arms length all summer not knowing if they would have a job come the state of the school year.

In June, Haywood announced it would not renew contracts for 54 teachers. They’ve been able to hire about 40 of those teachers back, however, reducing the number of actual lay-offs. Some teachers were saved when state cuts weren’t as severe as intially thought. Others were able to move into jobs vacated by teachers who were retiring.


What’s lost?

The Haywood school system saw a net loss of 32 positions, 23 of which were teacher’s assistants. The blow is a devastating one, particularly to the elementary grades.

Teacher’s assistants play a critical role, providing much of the housekeeping for a classroom — from helping a child find a missing lunchbox to discipline — thus freeing up teachers to focus on learning.

Teaching a roomful of elementary school students with a spectrum of abilities is a difficult task but is more plausible with the help of an assistant, said Toni Mullany, a former elementary school teacher who lives in Haywood County.

“They can say, ‘Let’s go over here in the corner and see if we can work through this math problem,’” Mullany said.

Cynthia Shuford, whose son is going into the second grade, couldn’t imagine his classroom without a teacher’s assistant.

“It would just be too much. Their learning would go down,” said Shuford, the president of the PTO at Bethel Elementary School.

Not all teacher’s assistants serve in a traditional classroom setting. Many work in special settings with children with disabilities or chronic discipline problems, and those who need extra help learning. Rena White, now a fifth grade teacher at Clyde Elementary School, served as a teacher’s assistant for years in a class for special needs students. She did everything from emptying catheters for students in wheelchairs to doing physical therapy.

Donnie and Joyce Bryson, the parents of a special needs student in Haywood County, were devastated when they learned early this summer that their son’s favorite teacher lost her job. She was in fact a teacher’s assistant who had put her nursing degree to work in the schools with special needs students. She had even come to visit the Brysons’ son in the hospital, which he visits frequently.

But as the state refined its budget over the course of the summer and the severity of the cuts lessened, the teacher, Shirley Downey, got to keep her job after all, providing a huge relief to the Brysons.

Amy Greene, who lost her job running the computer lab at Junaluska Elementary, was classified as a teacher’s assistant.

She did computer instruction for every student in the school at least once a week, and twice a week for those in third through fifth grade.

While Greene taught, the teachers reveled in the rare hiatus from students to plan for the next week or grade papers.

Now, teachers will presumably have to do their own instruction in the computer lab, not only adding to the workload but taking away a needed planning session.

At Central Elementary School, the positions for three teacher’s assistants who worked with underperforming students were cut. The school used to have six, but this year will only have three.

“It is going to be very hectic,” said Lynn Medford, a teacher in the program until this year. “They are going to have to do twice the work.”

Medford said the daily small group and one-on-one interaction was important to the students.

“If you work with them everyday you see where their weakness is and can figure out the best way to teach that child,” Medford said.

Medford has been moved to another open position at the school, and therefore, didn’t lose her job. This type of reshuffling went on across the school system, moving teachers who would otherwise be laid-off into positions vacated by those retiring.


Cuts far-reaching

Other Western North Carolina school districts are struggling with a drop in personnel, though more discreetly than the Haywood system. As teachers and staff leave through retirement or to take other jobs, the positions are either frozen or existing teachers who would otherwise be laid-off move into the open jobs.

“For the past year and a half, as people have retired or resigned, we have not filled that position unless we have to,” said Gwen Edwards, finance director for Jackson County Schools.

According to Edwards, any elective — like vocational education, for example — is on the chopping block when it comes to having someone to teach it. Also vacant in the Jackson system are three assistant principal spots; a receptionist position in the central office; and a bookkeeper at the high school, to name a few.

While these jobs have been cut, at least temporarily, the responsibilities that come with them remain — and are heaped on the plate of teachers and staff.

“The work is kind of split up between people, so it’s a little more work for everyone,” Edwards says.

Next door, Macon County Schools is dealing with its own share of cuts. Again, actual layoffs were avoided by a hiring freeze over the past year. The freeze applied not just to electives, but positions for required subjects.

“We haven’t filled any positions since January, but we do know time’s running out and there will have to be teachers in those classrooms,” Moore said.

Moore said the system has advertised and is currently hiring. But with every position, there’s a catch. Each contract is equipped with a clause that lets new hires know their position “is contingent upon a favorable budget,” Moore says.

With the budget finally passed and signed last week, administrators have mere days to weigh some heavy options before the school year starts.

“We’re going to have to make decisions that are pretty big, pretty soon, and pretty quick,” Moore said.

“With everything changing so much at the state level, it was really hard to make a budget,” agreed Gwen Edwards, finance director of Jackson County schools.

Adding to the challenge is that much of the budget is discretionary — meaning the state left it up to the local districts to decide what to cut.

“Instead, they’re going to make the local board of education the bad guy. We’re going to decide where to make those cuts,” Moore said.

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