Out with the fryer, in with baked sweet potatoes: Schools balance healthier lunches with what kids will eat

It was only 11 a.m., and already 60 fidgeting children had streamed down the lunch line at Jonathan Valley Elementary School, eagerly eying the pans of corndogs and beans, a steady barrage that would continue in five-minute waves until, some 300 lunches later, each class had eaten.

At the end of the serving counter they paused and peered into the milk cooler, pondering whether to grab chocolate or regular, while those lucky enough to have spare change in their pocket might make a dive into the most coveted bin — a freezer full of ice-cream.

Here’s what the kids don’t know. The chocolate milk is fat free, the ice-cream is low fat, and as for the corn dog? Try turkey dogs wrapped in whole-grain dough.

“We try to sneak it in there,” said Allison Francis, the nutrition director for Haywood County Schools.

There’s actually a term for that in school nutrition circles: “stealth health.”

SEE ALSO: Strained finances pose a hurdle to healthier school lunches

Despite the age-old stereotype, school lunches are the most mulled-over, fought-over, thought-out meal kids are likely to eat all day.

“School food historically gets a bad rap,” said Sherry Held, the school nutrition director in Macon County. “But where can you get a meal as nutritious as ours?”

Held and her counterparts are quick to rally to their own defense.

“People say school meals are not healthy, but let me tell you something, they are,” said Diane Shuler, the school nutritionist in Swain County.

But it isn’t easy.

“It gets kind of complicated,” Shuler said. “People think all I do is feed kids.”

Meeting a litany of federal standards yet fixing something kids like — particularly within the dour budget at their disposal — is a challenge to say the least.

“We probably all need counseling, but it is rewarding,” Held agreed. “If the students are eating good food, it is going to help fuel their minds and bodies.”

School lunches are undoubtedly a big business. While school lunch planners at the local level agonize over their weekly menus, trying to shoehorn all the food groups into a meal kids will eat, giant food manufacturers are employing teams of lobbyists to work the halls of Washington, ensuring pesky details like the health of children don’t stand in the way of bringing their products to market.

Despite the powerful interests behind fried tater-tots and crinkle fries, the federal government is moving slowly but surely toward healthier school lunch trays.

National media made great hay out of the fight over school lunch standards last month — a now notorious debate over whether pizza constitutes a vegetable.

New federal standards for school lunches will be unveiled in January, something that has school nutrition directors waiting somewhat nervously.

“We are about to see a sweeping overhaul in the child nutrition program,” said Lynn Harvey, the state director of child nutrition. “We know it will include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”

It will undoubtedly cost more. The federal government will ante up an additional six cents per lunch to help defray the costs, but Harvey has heard estimates that the cost of providing a single lunch will increase by 56 cents.


Money problems limit solutions

Several years ago, North Carolina took matters into its own hands. No more waiting on the federal government to make school lunches healthier. The state would come up with its own guidelines.

Unfortunately, many of the lofty goals — like requiring whole grains and banning fryers — were ultimately side-lined because they cost too much. Instead of standards, they were downgraded to mere “recommendations.”

“The problem is those standards were never funded by the North Carolina General Assembly,” said Harvey.

The standards were tested in 134 elementary schools across the state, but when it came time to make them policy, without funding to help schools make the transition, they were deemed impossible and unfair.

Healthy foods not only cost more and require more staff time to prepare, but school districts would have to replace equipment such as fryers with ovens — something that would cost a single county hundreds of thousands in new kitchen equipment.

At the time, Francis worked in one the few school districts to pilot the standards contemplated by the state. One in particular sticks out in Francis’ mind: the idea of meeting the USDA food group quotas for each and every lunch. Previously, schools counted servings of fruits, vegetables, protein and so on during an entire week and took the average — rather than applying the exact food group standards to each meal.

“It was next to impossible. All of us were in tears trying to plan menus and make it work,” Francis said. That idea was soon dropped.

Unfortunately, so were the other standards.

But, local school districts have voluntarily implemented the recommendations from the state anyway — roughly 80 percent in all. Fruit plays a starring role in desserts, from apple crisp to sliced pears. Tacos are made with ground turkey. Fried foods have been phased out almost entirely.

All the milk is either skim or 1 percent. Salad dressings are low-fat.

In Macon County this year, all chicken products are now whole-muscle chicken, rather than processed parts.

It’s something Shuler would like to do in Swain County as well, but the cost is prohibitive. Whole-muscle chicken products are simply too costly, she said.

One of the biggest pushes has come in whole grains. Bread and buns are whole grain, even the pizza crust. It means brown rice instead of white. Whole-wheat pasta is being slipped into dishes. But, it’s a balancing act.

“If it doesn’t taste good, even if you follow all these guidelines, they aren’t going to eat it,” Held said.

It’s the challenge all school lunch directors face.

“You can make something as healthy as you possibly can, but if it is not something they like, it is going to end up in the trash can,” Francis said.

Francis understands picky kids. For years, she stuffed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in her purse before going to out eat with her kids. There was no way she was going to order and pay for something on the menu her kids wouldn’t eat anyway.

Meanwhile, food companies have seen the writing on the wall. From Sara Lee to Kellogg’s, they offer special wholesale lines for school cafeterias that have lower fat, sugar and salt contents than the grocery store varieties.

Sure you might see pizza on the school menu but looks can be deceiving.

“Our pizza has whole-wheat crust and reduced fat-cheese and turkey pepperoni,” Francis said.

These facts are strikingly absent from the printed lunch menu, however.

“We don’t really want to tell children they are eating whole-grain pizza. We just tell them, ‘You get pizza today!’” Held said.


‘Baby steps’

Held has learned the importance of baby steps in the five years that she has been with Macon County Schools.

“We try to ease them in to making better choices, like whole-wheat spaghetti and slowly eliminating the not so healthy choices,” Held said.

They are also learning what simply doesn’t take. Kids are savvy. They check the school lunch menus, and if they don’t like what’s on it, they bring their lunch that day. The cafeterias can ill-afford to fix food that no one will buy.

Students have summarily rejected whole-wheat mac-and-cheese for example, Held said. In Swain, they learned that lesson the hard way.

The first time Swain County put whole-wheat mac-and-cheese on the serving line this year, kids eagerly loaded it onto their trays but were less than enamored with it once they sat down and started eating. Hoping once more, they went got it again the next time it made a lunch line appearance.

But the third time it turned up on the menu, they wouldn’t touch it. The school cafeteria had to crank out 130 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — the staple substitute when standard menu items are rejected — as kids came through the line.

The problem, however, is that Swain County ordered copious volumes of whole-wheat pasta at the beginning of the year that still has to be used up.

“Live and learn, live and learn,” Shuler said.

Ultimately, the hope is that the good eating habits introduced at school will bleed over into their home life.

“If you daughter came home and said, ‘Mommy I tried sweet potato wedges at school today and they were really yummy,’ you might say, ‘Really?’” Held said. “We do the best we can with the time we have with them.”


Free breakfast!

Any K-12 student eligible for free or reduced lunch can now get breakfast at no cost — yes, that’s totally free — thanks to a new state initiative that recognizes kids don’t learn as well when they’re hungry.


School lunch by the numbers

• $2.79: federal reimbursement for students on free lunch

• $2: school lunch for elementary student paying out of pocket

• $3.75: average cost of preparing a lunch in Haywood County

• 16 cents: cost to school for 4 ounces of juice

• 30 cents: cost to school for an apple

• $15,000-$20,000: cost of an oven to replace a deep fryer

• 35 percent: portion of school lunch budget spent on food

• 65 percent: portion of school lunch budget spent on salaries and overhead

Students will need to dig deeper to cover costs

Western Carolina University students likely will shell out an additional $399 in tuition and fees to attend school next year, an increase in dollars that some on campus said will be hard for them to come by.

It’s likely to be most difficult for students such as Kayla Damons. A Tennessee resident who transferred to WCU last year, Damons faces the daunting task of paying higher out-of-state tuition requirements.

Damons, a biology major, said she expects she’ll be some $30,000 in debt after gaining an undergraduate degree. A tuition and fee hike, she said, certainly won’t help ease that burden.

“It’s really kind of scary,” Damons said, taking a short break to chat from her job at the Mad Batter restaurant in Cullowhee, where she works to pay her way through school. “But then there’s nothing you can do about the cost if you want an education.”

It’s not just students who are worried. Mad Batter owner Jeannette Evans said she believes there’s a constant trickledown occurring in the local economy, and that a tuition and fee hike at WCU also won’t help local businesses such as her restaurant.

“It seems you have to do more and offer more just to stay at the status quo,” such as offering additional menu items and keeping earlier and later hours, the 14-year restaurant owner said.

This year’s expected increase follows campus-wide discussion on the issue among students, perhaps the first time that sort of direct budget participation by the student body has taken place here. The University of North Carolina Board of Governors must approve WCU’s proposed tuition and student fee hike, however, before it becomes policy.

With the proposed changes approved by the trustees, WCU’s total cost of attendance in 2012-13, including on-campus housing and the most-popular meal plan, would be $11,775 per year for a typical N.C. undergraduate, according to WCU spokesman Bill Studenc.


The decision wasn’t unanimous

T.J. Eaves, student body president, helped broker something of a compromise on the proposed increase. Eaves and Sam Miller, vice chancellor for student affairs, co-chaired a campus committee on the proposed tuition and student fees.

The increase easily could have been steeper than the 3 percent eventually arrived at. And some trustee members said, for the long-term well-being of the university, that it should have been.

Severe financial constraints — WCU has seen the state cut more than $32 million since the 2008-09 fiscal year  — have left the school scrambling to pay bills. WCU isn’t alone. The UNC system, because of budget cuts across North Carolina, authorized universities such as WCU to begin to “catch-up” with rates charged at similar-type institutions.

A study by the UNC General Administration showed that WCU is charging $1,360 less per year for tuition than the “least expensive quartile of peer institutions.”

Under a graduated plan approved by WCU’s trustees by a 9-2 vote last week, 15 percent of the $1,360 “catch-up” increase would be implemented in year one, 20 percent in year two, 25 percent in years three and four, and 15 percent in year five.

Two of the trustees urged the university to play catch-up over four years instead of the five agreed upon. Trustee Pat Kimberling said that would add an additional $48 to each student’s bill annually, for a $447 increase.

“The job of the Board of Trustees is to look after the long term well-being of the university,” Kimberling said. “The students who voted on this proposal will be gone … sometimes, in a custodial position, you have to make hard decisions.”

Trustee Carolyn Coward, who joined Kimberling in voting against the adopted recommendation, added that she believed “that we need to take advantage of this opportunity as quickly as we can, because we may never have this opportunity again.”


Listening to the students

But Trustee Wardell Townsend said the board needed to show students they were willing to listen.

“The students are not just our wards, they are consumers. And they are paying for a product,” Townsend said, adding that by accepting the students’ compromise proposal, the trustees “tell the student body that they are truly invested and that we truly hear them. They spoke; we made the adjustment.”

And that, Townsend said, would result in a “true dialogue” among administrators, the Board of Trustees and the university’s students.

What went unsaid is that by adopting the student-forged compromise, the board of trustees would endorse a new method of leadership being instituted at WCU under new Chancellor David Belcher. He took over this summer with promises to build transparency and cooperation into the system by including all stakeholders in university issues.

Late-breaking idea to merge gym and auditorium proves short-lived

An expected rubberstamp by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners to build a new auditorium and gym at Smoky Mountain High School took a brief — but wild while the ride lasted — turn this week.

Commissioners have already expressed support for the $10.5 million project and by all indications, were poised to sign off this week on a $500,000 architectural contract.

Commissioner Doug Cody instead suggested that the county’s leaders give consideration to an even grander concept. Cody said he’d been waking up early in the mornings lately stewing over. Cody suggested combining the gym and auditorium into a multi-purpose arena that could host events with the potential to draw tourists.

“I’m asking the indulgence of the school board and my fellow commissioners here to explore that option,” Cody said. “A high school play isn’t going to fill your hotels, it is not going to fill your restaurants.” But, an events arena might, he said.

Cody’s suggestion received the welcome of a bottle fly landing on a newly baked cake. School board members, sitting in the audience with county school administrators, assumed their best blank expressions, but some unhappy murmurs erupted.

Commissioner Joe Cowan spoke out against the idea, saying that chorus, band and theater students deserve their own fine arts center just as much as athletes deserve a gym.

“We’ve got a plan here that’s been in the making for 35 years. It looks good; it’s what the school board says that they want,” Cowan said.

When everything shook down, commissioners simply voted 5-0 to approve the construction designs as originally presented by educators. Cody ultimately joined in the vote to approve the design contract.

“You know when you’re whipped,” a visibly frustrated Cody said.

Cody wasn’t left totally high and dry on his proposal. Fellow GOP party member Commissioner Charles Elders did attempt to place girders under his sinking colleague, asking forcefully but somewhat obscurely: “This is a bad economy … when are we going to bounce out of it, and who is going to pay for it?”

In an interview after the meeting, School Board member Elizabeth Cooper emphasized to The Smoky Mountain News that her board’s members did deeply appreciate the county chipping-in the required funds. Her fellow board member, Ali Laird-Large, said she was “ecstatic” that the project can now move forward.

Larger classes, higher fees, fewer professors: what the WCU budget cuts really mean

Laurie Oxford’s department is getting smaller; some of her former co-worker’s offices sit empty.

Oxford, an assistant Spanish professor at Western Carolina University, spoke at a public forum about university cuts Monday on how multi-level reductions have affected the Arts and Sciences department, which has eliminated several faculty positions and all of its Chinese classes.

“Wherever the money is, it’s not in Arts and Sciences,” Oxford said, half-joking.

Losing a person means more than simply having one fewer coworker.

“They mean considerably fewer class choices (and) in general, a much less effective program,” she said.

Oxford warned the audience of more than 200 students, politicians, professors, administrators and other community members that soon other departments will begin to look like the Arts and Sciences if states and universities continue to make sweeping cuts. WCU administrators must cut about $30 million from next year’s budget.

Larger class sizes, higher tuition, fewer course offerings and laid-off faculty members brought the crowd together.

The forum was part of a statewide, student-led “Cuts Hurt” movement that attempts to lay out what the decline in education funding really means. The approved state budget will cut more than $400 million statewide in higher education spending.

The budget cuts passed by the Republican-led General Assembly were “as extreme as they were unnecessary,” said Gov. Bev Perdue, in a video to attendees of the WCU forum.

Perdue vetoed the budget bill earlier this year, but the General Assembly overrode her veto.

“You’ve seen these cuts, and you understand the damage that has been done to the core of North Carolina,” Perdue said.

Like colleges and universities across the country, WCU has faced its own budget crisis and had to raise tuition and make across-the-board cuts in order to balance its budget. Last week, university administrators presented their recommendations for tuition and fee increases to its Board of Trustees. They had originally planned to raise tuition by 17 percent during a four-year period but changed those numbers after meeting with students.

“We heard you, and we went back to the drawing board,” said Sam Miller, vice chancellor of Student Affairs.

Instead, tuition will increase by 13 percent during a five-year period. When combined with fees, the total cost of attendance will increase by almost 7 percent.

“We think that it is still unfortunately higher than we’d like to do,” Miller said, tempering that sentiment by adding that the increase will help balance the budget and maintain academic quality.

Several students spoke during the forum about how tuition increases affect them.

Emily Evans, a single mother and senior at WCU, said she knew that university administrators were doing their best to minimize the impact of the budget cuts but bemoaned the need to increase already high tuition costs.

“When is the last time your Pell Grant went up?” Evans asked.

Students must take out more loans to cover the cost of education. Student loan debt in the U.S. will surpassed the $1 trillion mark this year.

“This is a big problem, not just for students like me,” Evans said.

Some students are forced to put their education on credit cards, which have high interest rates. Fewer students will ultimately graduate as college becomes tougher to afford.

“Anybody in this room could predict that those students aren’t going to finish,” said N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill.

Lawmakers have turned their back on education and that needs to change, he said.

“We have got to turn this state around. It’s going the wrong direction,” Rapp said.

Throughout the event, speakers urged students to register to vote and to create videos of themselves talking about why education is so important to them and how they have been affected by the cuts. The videos will be posted to the “Cuts Hurt” Facebook page.

“People will listen to you,” said Andy Miller, a WCU student and one of the event organizers. “Your voice matters and important, important people are listening.”

Shuler leads national call for much larger debt cuts

Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, is leading a bipartisan call, asking the joint super committee to spare nothing in its cuts to the U.S. deficit.

“It will be heard throughout the world that we can do something together,” Shuler said in a phone interview, “and work for the united good of this nation.”

A Nov. 2 bipartisan letter signed by 100 members of Congress asks the super committee tasked with recommending budget solutions in Washington to cut $4 trillion rather than the mandated $1.2 trillion.

Analyses by multiple economic, partisan and bipartisan groups say the U.S must cut its deficit spending and place the amount of the cuts near $4 trillion, said Shuler.

The letter is not specific about what should be trimmed but states that the committee should keep all types of mandatory and discretionary spending and revenues.

“You can’t do one without the other,” Shuler said. “It has to be a combination of both.”

The committee, comprised of Senate and House of Representatives members, must create a plan by Nov. 23. Failure to do so will result in across-the-board cuts in 2013.

No compromise means “the political parties have won, and America has lost,” Shuler said.

Shuler has staked himself out as a moderate in his seven years in office, despite his formal label as a Democrat. He is also a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate Democrats in Congress that claim to rise above the political fray.

The letter was co-authored by Congressman Mike Simpson (R-ID) and signed by 100 members of Congress, including David Price, Howard Coble, Mike McIntrye and Mel Watt.

“We write to you as a bipartisan group of representatives from across the political spectrum in the belief that the success of your committee is vital to our country’s future,” states the letter. “We know that many in Washington and around the country do not believe we in the Congress and those within your committee can successfully meet this challenge. We believe that we can and we must.”

‘Occupy’ movement moves into Sylva

“Occupy Sylva” on Saturday looked and sounded a lot like a Democratic-party function, but with a twist. The message wasn’t necessarily about voting Democratic, though speakers, particularly political office holders, certainly worked that wish into speeches when their moments came to grab the microphone.

The bigger message, and what seemed to have motivated the more than 60 people gathered on Main Street Sylva more than party politics, was about stopping corporate greed, creating jobs and not limiting wealth to a privileged few in a nation with such vast resources at its command.

This was Sylva’s contribution to the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement. The leaderless movement started one month ago in New York City, with protests spreading nationwide and beyond. Occupy Sylva, Occupy Asheville, Occupy Seattle … even Occupy Helsinki, Occupy Rome, Occupy Berlin and Occupy London.

Sylva’s occupiers waved mostly homemade signs at passing traffic, receiving either toots of horns in support or blank looks from motorists as they swung their cars by the water fountain that fronts Main Street where the protesters gathered.

The signs read, “Corporations are not people,” “Get money out of politics,” “No more predatory capitalism,” “Jobs not cuts.”

No tent city emerged in Sylva as in other Occupy events — after about an hour, everyone wandered off, many to area restaurants to grab a bite to eat before heading to their homes. No clashes with police occurred, either. In fact, if there were any Sylva officers keeping an eye on this group, they were deep, deep undercover — there wasn’t a blue uniform in sight.

While small-town civility ruled this particular Occupy event, the people who gathered were clearly serious in their intentions: They were one voice in demanding that change, real change, must take place.

“We are not a poor country. Our money is just in the wrong place,” said Marsha Crites, who attended the event.

Kurt Lewis, a member of the Young Democrats at Smoky Mountain High School, was somewhat disappointed that few people in his age group showed up. He held a sign that read, “Wall Street is America’s largest casino.”

“They need to care now instead of caring later, before it is too late,” the 17 year old said of his fellow teens.

This being Jackson County, where a preponderance of WNC’s literati call home, poems were of course read, too. Ben Bridgers, retired from attorney work this year, said he’s turned to writing as a means to funnel his growing frustrations with what’s taking place nationally.

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” Bridgers told the crowd, before reading aloud a few poems that spoke to why he believes this country is in trouble.

The Occupy Sylva event looked quite a bit like the left’s version of the Tea Party movement, though the speeches and political aims couldn’t be more different.

Political junkie Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University professor who teaches political science, noticed and enjoyed that irony, too. He turned out to observe the nation’s latest grassroots movement at work in small town WNC.

“It’s very interesting,” Cooper said. “Both (groups) are saying they are fed up, but they have such radically different solutions.”

Leaders take on tree-enshrouded vistas on Parkway

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority is looking for ways to help the Blue Ridge Parkway trim its chronic overgrowth troubles.

The parkway doesn’t have the money or resources to regularly trim trees that encroach upon its many overlooks, a persistant problem over the years further exacerbated by federal budget cuts. The natural vantage points are one of the top tourist draws along the parkway.

The Haywood tourism agency feared the overgrown overlooks would mean less visitors traveling the scenic road, and several years ago came up with the idea of paying to cut the trees itself. But budget concerns of its own have prevented the tourism entity from sticking with its tree-cutting campaign consistently.

At its meeting last Wednesday, the tourism board talked about a couple of different approaches it could take in the coming year to cut the overgrowth.

The county tourism agency is considering giving the parkway money to hire seasonal workers for two months. The parkway could use its existing seasonal maintenance staff and simply extend their contract by an additional two months to focus on overlook clearing. For those two months, the workers would focus specifically on the appearance of Haywood County’s nearly 70 overlooks.

“The parkway hires those people (seasonal employees) to start in May, and what we might consider doing is paying to bring them on in March and pay them for March and April,” said Lynn Collins, director to the tourism agency.

The total cost for the additional months depends on how many seasonal employees the parkway hires, Collins said. The tourism agency would give the parkway $6,500 per employee and must give the parkway a commitment by January.

Agency officials also contemplated working with Haywood Community College’s forestry students or friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway to the makeover and maintain the overlooks.

Faculty packs overflow balcony to hear new chancellor’s opening address

Western Carolina University is facing, at best, an austere financial year.

Chancellor David Belcher, in his first address to faculty and staff, was blunt about the financial difficulties facing the university. He warned his new employees that all spending would be scrutinized, and said they must fully and satisfactorily justify any new programs and course offerings, particularly electives.

The state, when all was said and done, cut WCU’s overall budget by 13.4 percent. While university leaders were prepared for an economic wallop, they were caught off guard by the sudden yanking of another $2 million they’d planned on. This happened when the state didn’t let universities use money left over from the previous budget year. The plan had been to use this carry-forward funding, as had been a usual financial practice at WCU, to help cover ongoing expenses, Belcher said.

Combine the $2 million with the other state cuts, and WCU found itself with a total $4.85 million overall deficit.  

“We cannot run a university this way,” the new chancellor said, explaining that the university’s top officials balanced the budget by whittling away at expenses. This included money set aside to maintain WCU’s information-technology infrastructure.

“Send your most positive thoughts to our IT system,” Belcher told his employees. “It cannot malfunction this year.”

Many in the crowd chuckled — and it really was a crowd, so many faculty and staff showed up for what is generally a beginning-of-the-year formality a balcony was opened in the fine and performing arts center’s auditorium to handle overflow. Belcher added in a serious tone: “No, I’m really not kidding.”

“The budget situation remains uncertain,” he said. “But I assure you that we will make it through these tough financial times.”

Belcher emphasized the need to raise enrollment numbers — which leads to increased state money and tuition money — but doing so while not lowering the caliber of students the university accepts. Additionally, with the state now heavily emphasizing retention and graduation rates, a shift in emphasis must take place, he said.

“Improving our retention rate is everybody’s responsibility,” he said.

But Belcher told faculty he wanted to shed his “reactionay mantle” that defined his first two months on the job. He planned now to throw himself headlong into crafting a new strategic plan for the university. The chancellor urged faculty and staff to join him in taking ownership of WCU.

“The strategic planning process is an opportunity to identify what we will pursue and what we will not pursue,” Belcher said. “In light of the current conditions, we cannot be all things to all people. Everything cannot and will not be a priority.”

The strategic planning process will be led by a steering committee called the 2020 Commission, and will include participation from various stakeholders on campus, such as faculty, staff and students. And, he said, from the external community – alumni, donors, and business and community leaders.

The target is to have a plan ready for presentation to the Board of Trustees at its June meeting 10 months from now.

“Achievement of such a plan will require rejection of myopia and commitment to the good of the whole,” Belcher said. “We will be guided by our commitment to student success – the success of every student. And we will retain that value that has defined us for years, an external focus and external engagement.”

Belcher announced the formation of the Chancellor’s Leadership Council, a group composed of about 40 campus leaders from the faculty, staff, student body and administration.

He also unveiled a more inclusive budgeting process designed to provide additional input into decision-making and enhance transparency. That process will include an annual budget hearing that will involve the newly formed leadership council. Belcher also asked Faculty Senate and Staff Senate to consider the creation of a joint budget and planning committee to ensure that faculty and staff concerns are integrally involved in the budget process.

Fontana Dam post office targeted for closure

The U.S. Postal Service wants to close Fontana Dam’s tiny post office to save money, a downsizing move critics say would further isolate the small community.

This far-flung outpost in Graham County is frequented by tourists, and serves as a vital waypoint for thousands of hikers on the Appalachian Trail.

Despite the region’s remote location, it turns into a bustling place in the summer with throngs of tourists coming to Fontana Village Resort — as well as an influx of seasonal workers topping more than 140. Those seasonal workers rely on post office boxes to get their mail, with so much demand some years the Fontana post office has run out of post office boxes.

Residents also rely on the post office boxes, according to Craig Litz, an employee at Fontana Village Resort.

“You have a significant number of people who live in the village,” Litz said. “Their round trip to the next closest post office is 45 miles.”

And it will hurt the resort as well, he said.

“From a business standpoint we have tons of guests at Fontana Village resort who forget stuff that we have to mail back to them,” Litz said. That would now require a trek to town every time grandma left or glass or junior left this favorite stuffed animal behind after their stay.

The next closest post office is in Robbinsville or the Nantahala Gorge, a 45-mile trip respectively. Factor in the slow speeds required on the curvy, twisty roads, and a trip to the post office would require a two-hour investment.

The community, just this year, become a bonafide town. The new town is home to only 33 fulltime residents, but that population number is deceptive: about 100,000 people a year visit the resort.


Appalachian Trail woes

The Fontana post office is perhaps most critical, however, to hikers along the Appalachian Trail.

The long-distance hiker traversing the 2,200-mile trail from Georgia to Maine mail themselves care packages, as do friends and family, full of needed supplies.

“Everything from food to extra socks,” Litz said.

The Fontana post office is a key drop point for these care packages.

“In the spring time, we have a room dedicated just to stuff from the hikers,” Litz said. That’s when thru-hikers doing the entire trail are coming through in waves of 30 a day.

Hikers also use the post office to send unneeded equipment back home, such as winter jackets they started the trail with but no longer need. Fontana Dam is just 1.8 miles from the trail.

“It’s very important — Fontana is part of the long-distance hiking experience, and part of the logistics of resupply,” said Laurie Potteiger, an AT thru-hike veteran and information services manager for the Appalachian Trail Conference, headquartered in Harpers Ferry, W. Va.

Fontana Dam is the first post office hikers hit after starting the trail in Georgia, once any distance under way, that’s in such close proximity to the trail.

The proposed closure is part of a broader cost savings measures by the U.S. Post Office. Last week the postal service announced it would study whether to close nearly 3,700 local offices and branches because of falling revenues. Facing an $8.3 billion budget deficit this year, closing post offices is one of several proposals the Postal Service has recently considered to cut costs, and one of three that are drop points for Appalachian Trail hikers.

Fontana’s leaders are fighting the proposed closure. They have appealed to U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, for help.

Shuler hopes to stop the closure, spokesman Andrew Whalen said this week.

“We are doing our best to ensure it stays open,” Whalen said Tuesday. “We’re drafting a formal appeal to the U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission.”

A new life in the cards for Haywood’s prison?

The oft-threatened closure of the state prison in Haywood County has finally come to pass, but by now, it hardly comes as a surprise.

“Every year, they would always say it is going to close,” said Haywood Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick.

And so every year, county leaders appealed to mountain legislators to save the prison, who in turn mounted political pressure on their colleagues in the General Assembly to put the prison back in the budget.

The prison was spared the chopping block, but the victory was always short-lived, giving way the following year to cries of “here we go again” and another round of lobbying.

“I think our representatives at the state level had indicated inevitably it was going to close. They could push it off or prolong it, but inevitably they wouldn’t have the votes to keep it,” Kirkpatrick said.

“At some point we realized we were going to lose it,” Commissioner Bill Upton said.

It’s not clear exactly what the state will do with the prison it abandons. Haywood County has an idea, however, that’s still in its infancy and might not come to fruition, but county commissioners are giving a hard look.

Commissioners are contemplating leasing the prison from the state and going in to the inmate business. For $40 a night, the county would house prisoners from other places — from other counties that don’t have enough space in their own jail or from the state itself.

Commissioners say they won’t plunge headlong toward owning a prison yard unless it makes sense.

“You don’t just necessarily want to take it because you can,” Swanger said. “You want to make sure what you are taking. We have to make a wise decision.”

They asked County Manager Marty Stamey to put together a feasibility study and hope to hear back in another week.

The fact-finding mission would include estimated utility costs, staffing and upkeep.

With the county jail next door, the prison wouldn’t need its own cooks or medical officer or canteen. It could piggyback on the jail’s support staff and really only need the guards. The number of guards could be adjusted depending on how many prisoners materialized.

The county could also operate just half the facility, cutting down on utilities.

The beauty of the deal may be the rate the state will lease it for. Commissioners are hoping for the bargain rate of a $1 a year.

Why such a good deal? It’s doubtful the state would find a buyer for a 128-bed prison on the open real estate market, and at least leasing it to the county would keep it from being a maintenance headache and liability for the state.

No matter how cheap the lease is, the county doesn’t want to be saddled with a deteriorating facility that becomes more work than it’s worth. But based on an inspection of the prison by the County Maintenance Director Dale Burris, it is in surprisingly good shape.

“The buildings are old but very well maintained,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley

The big kicker, however, is whether there are actually inmates out there who need to be housed somewhere.

When someone is first charged with a crime, counties bear the burden of housing them in their local jails. Only after they go to trial and get sentenced by a judge are they shipped off to a state prison.

The state doesn’t seem terribly pressed for space: the existing population at the Haywood prison is easily being absorbed into the state’s other prisons. So demand for bed space, if it exists, would likely come from other counties who have maxed out their own jails.

But there’s the rub.

“A lot of the counties have built new jails,” Haywood Sheriff Bobby Suttles said.

Over half the counties bordering Haywood have recently built new jails of their own and have room to spare: Swain, Jackson and Madison counties all have new jails, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is about to build one.

Cherokee County also has built a large new jail, capturing overflow inmates from other far western counties.

With so few jails at capacity, there might be little overflow for Haywood to capitalize on — if not for a new state law that would keep inmates serving minor sentences in county custody. (see related article.)

The new law would pay counties to house inmates convicted of misdemeanors and serving less than 180 days. In the past, they would have entered the state’s prison system.

It will give Haywood another 14 prisoners a year, not enough to make leasing the shut-down state prison viable. But Haywood could volunteer to keep some of those convicted misdemeanor prisoners on behalf of other counties, who have enough room for their own inmates but not enough room to take on the extra load.

“We are trying to determine how many of those there actually are in the state,” Swanger said, adding however that there probably won’t be that many

And that may sideline the whole idea.

“I am skeptical about short-term profitability,” Swanger said.

Suttles is more inclined to strike while the iron is hot, assuming that the inmate population is bound to grow in the future.

“Eventually, I think there will be a need for it, to hold inmates. It would be real handy,” Suttles said.

The fences around the perimeters of the state prison and county jail are practically touching already.

Commissioners are contemplating a worst-case scenario where the county essentially mothballs the site for now to see if more demand materializes. And in the meantime, the county looks out for its interests by keeping something else from moving in there, something that may not be compatible with the county’s neighboring jail or public dumpster station.

“If we don’t lease it and the state sells it, who is going to be our neighbor?” Swanger said.

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