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Central supporters appeal for solution instead of closing

fr appealMany of the speakers at a public hearing on whether to close Central Elementary School in Waynesville urged Haywood County School board members to think outside the box and find another way to solve the budget shortfall.

“The focus of this discussion needs to change from, ‘We can’t afford it, we don’t have the money, we can’t do it, there’s no way,” said Mark Melrose, an attorney and parent of a Central student. “The focus should be ‘How are we going to keep this school open and operating in this community for another 75 years?’”

Melrose urged the school board not to be defeatist and take the easy way out. 

“We need to change the way we are looking at this to ‘we can afford it, we can do it, let’s figure out a way to make it happen.’ This is not a devastating crisis that can’t be solved,” Melrose said.

That sentiment was echoed — no less eloquently — by some of Central’s students.

“There is something we can do to save the school, and if we find that thing, we can do that and not have to close,” said student Alex Castro.

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A few speakers expressed dismay that they weren’t told of the possibility sooner. An inner circle of school administration officials have been talking about the idea of closing Central for at least four months, but it was kept quiet. The public wasn’t made aware until three weeks ago, and by then, the school board was on the fast track to a decision. A final vote is supposed to happen Monday, Feb 8.

“This thing that was dropped in our laps,” Melrose said.

“We have only had about two weeks to process this, and it didn’t give us enough time to do our research. Why is this thing on a crash schedule where we don’t have time to be ready? There is no deadline except the deadline you folks make.”

Chris Williamson, the PTA president of Central, begged the school board to be open-minded. 

“I have heard the decision has already been made and that we are just here for formalities,” Williamson said. “I hope that’s not true. I ask you to really search your hearts and consider our kids.”

Surely the school board could find other cuts, “instead of disbanding an entire school and throwing parents, students and teachers into chaos,” said Stanley Branch, a parent.

Several speakers echoed the call to make cuts elsewhere.

“Have we explored every opportunity out there for stones that need to be unturned?” said Bobby Justice, a retired financial analyst.

Since closing Central saves only $500,000, while the budget shortfall is $2.4 million, how will it help?

“You close Central and you still got a big budget problem,” Justice said. “Central is almost like a scapegoat and a smoke screen.”

School officials have actually devised a plan to make system-wide cuts to solve the full $2.4 million shortfall without closing Central, but the widespread cuts could be lessened if Central was sacrificed.

Some claimed the rationale behind Central’s closing — to save $500,000 a year — is a fallacy in the first place.

The school system is funded based on student head count. If Central is disbanded, some students may exit the public school system altogether. 

A student raised this point at the public hearing, questioning whether Central’s students will remain in the public school system or go elsewhere.

“It could also be Shining Rock or an online charter school or homeschool,” said Sarah Elizabeth Super.

Since state funding is based on a “so much money per student policy,” the net gain from closing Central won’t be as much as presumed if some students leave the public schools and those dollars are lost, Super said.

The bitter taste left by Central closing could prompt some to make that choice.

“We have supported Haywood County Schools. Now Haywood County is not supporting us. Why should we choose Haywood County Schools?” asked Stanley Branch, a parent. 

Melrose questioned why the county commissioners couldn’t be asked to provide more local funding to bridge the gap and keep Central open, even if that means a local property tax increase.

“The commissioners will give the money if you stand up and tell them you are not going to take anything less than the half a million it takes to keep this thing open,” Melrose said.

Haywood County Commissioner Mark Swanger said in a later interview that the school system has not asked the county for more money. School officials met with Swanger and Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick to brief them on the situation, but they did not suggest that the county should step in with more money to fix the shortfall brought on by cuts from the state. Haywood County funds the school system at one of the highest rates in the state already, Swanger said.

That’s won’t stop Central supporters from trying, however.

“What we can do is hope for miracles,” Landry Wilson, an 11-year-old at Central, said at the hearing.

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