Scott McLeod

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Many of us who call these mountains home rely on the isolation, the distance from the cold realities of modern times that one can find in a home nestled deep in a high mountain cove. But it’s really a false hope, and all it takes is a few events to bring us back to the here and now.

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I’m not sure where home is, but my children know. They’re first-generation mountaineers, which means, should they stay, they’ve got a lot riding on their shoulders. I hope they’re up to it.

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We in the newspaper business are supposed to be having the bejesus scared out of us because of the power of the Internet. And right now, as people are spending billions making Internet purchases for Christmas, this fact is hitting home. Soon, we who put out traditional newspapers will be forgotten, quaint relics from the past.

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op frGoogle is a wonderful thing, but it sometimes makes things harder for journalists. That’s why a new emphasis on transparency among newspapers and news sites may be one of the measures that helps save real journalism and differentiates it from all that other stuff out there on the web.

“In the digital world, where information is infinite and infinitely replicable, being transparent … helps distinguish journalism from other content on the web,” writes Martin Moore, the executive director of the Media Standards Trust, in a blog post that listed the arguments in favor of transparency.

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op fr“… the long-term benefits of a high-quality pre-K program can be substantial. These include higher high school graduation rates, lower rates of juvenile delinquency, less substance abuse, and higher adult earnings. Thus, many studies show that high-quality pre-K programs can improve outcomes for disadvantaged children in the short run and generate favorable returns for taxpayers in the long run.”

— Professor William T. Gormley Jr., Georgetown Public Policy Institute

Most parents who have the time and the education to take part in their children’s schooling remember well those first couple of years. Your child — with your help — was prepared for kindergarten, and then you worked with them as they learned to read and do simple math. Other children, however, came to school so unprepared that they demanded so much of the teacher’s time that it slowed the whole class down.

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op fr“It is an Internet Age paradox: We have more information than ever before and yet, seem to know less. Indeed, in the Internet Age, it can be fairly said that nothing is ever truly, finally knowable, authoritative testimony always subject to contradiction by some blogger grinding axes, some graduate of Google U, somebody who heard from somebody who heard from somebody who heard.”

— Leonard Pitts, Miami Herald

Leonard Pitts calls it Secret Knowledge, the information that only a few people know, but those people who know it know it to be true. I refer to it as the Internet Plague, a condition whereby any statement — no matter how outrageous, how cockamamie, how simply stupid — will be given credence by some wild-eyed know-it-all with a computer at his fingertips, facts be damned.

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op frI wish those planning to open a new charter school in Haywood County the best. Their intentions are completely honorable. But I also believe that the proliferation of school choice in the U.S. is not a long-term positive for the country.

Look, it would be ludicrous to argue that the U.S. system of public education is great. There are lazy, below-average teachers, way too many uninspired central office bureaucrats (who don’t, by the way, deserve double the pay of classroom teachers), and too many parents who don’t — for any of a multitude of reasons — make school a priority for their children.

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op frHere’s hoping No Name Sports Pub and the town of Sylva can work out their differences on noise so that both get what they need.

As it stands now, the establishment has stopped booking live music because neighbors have complained that the bands and traffic are making too much racket late at night. According to town commissioners, they believe the bar and its owner are not complying with the town’s noise ordinance. 

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op frThe Haywood County School Board narrowly voted (5 to 4, with Chairman Chuck Francis breaking a tie) to contribute money toward a lobbying effort by the N.C. School Boards Association. The decision is the right one given the current situation in Raleigh and hopefully will be money well spent.

Lobbying is a catchall phrase that often has a negative connotation. I get that. When business groups direct thousands of dollars to candidate campaigns and then try to use that support to influence legislation, things often get sleazy. We’ve all read about it happening too many times.

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op frI watched world leaders with arms linked lead a march of about 1.5 million people in Paris to commemorate the ideals of free speech following the massacre at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo by Muslim terrorists. I read about the outpouring of support for the newspaper’s gutsy cartoons that lampooned — in addition to Islamic terrorism — anything and everything.

And then I sought out the cartoons that infuriated so many Muslims so I could see for myself what kind of artwork could engender such emotion. If you haven’t looked, you may or may not want to take the time to do it. These are rough, sometimes vulgar images that are cringe-worthy. Satire has always been one of the cruelest forms of free expression because at its best it insults your sensibilities to get a message across. And these cartoons are insulting.

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op frOne of my wife’s childhood friends lives near Wilmington. Her daughter, a senior at Appalachian State, died last week in a tragic car accident. We went to the service two days after Christmas. 

One of the young lady’s sorority sisters had the courage and strength to speak, but could only do so with six or seven of her friends surrounding her, literally helping her keep standing and keep talking at times when she was overcome. When they got to the podium — most of them in tears — it was as if the grief, already overwhelming, was multiplied by 10.

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op frMoments, mostly the ones unplanned, are the stuff of important and lasting life memories. 

We had a great Thanksgiving day with our daughter Hannah, son Liam and family in Asheville. My wife Lori and her sister Julie had planned the dinner for some time, and all turned out as we had hoped. 

I left for the office Friday with Lori and Hannah snuggled on the couch watching an old Audrey Hepburn film because, well, that’s what my girls do on vacation days. On Saturday morning we went skiing early at Cataloochee to get in some first-of-the-season runs before the holiday weekend crowds jammed the lift lines. The snow was perfect, and we all gushed once again about how lucky we are to have such a great ski mountain so close to home.

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op frJust as President Obama seems poised to sign an executive order preventing the deportation of up to 5 million illegal immigrants, we read in the Nov. 17 Asheville Citizen-Times that a newcomer center for immigrants in the city school system is so full it has a waiting list. I have no idea how many of those students in the newcomer center or waiting to get in are illegals, but the point is that we have a huge immigration problem in this country and policy to address it keeps being ignored by those in a position to change things.

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op frCullowhee rising. Sounds like a fitting name for some aspiring college band, but it best describes what’s happening at Western Carolina University and the community surrounding it. It’s one of the fastest growing places in the region whose potential is matched by the energy of those who live and work there. And this is why it is important that those advocating for zoning measures in Cullowhee prevail in the face of the passionate but misguided voices trying to squelch the forward motion.

Western Carolina University has 7,500 traditional college students who live and study in and around Cullowhee. Total enrollment is around 10,300, but some of those are nontraditional students — professionals seeking a second degree who live elsewhere or students at its satellite locations. By 2023 — that sounds like the distant future, but is now less than 10 years away — that 7,500 figure is expected to grow to 11,000. That’s a whopping 46 percent increase in students, and that doesn’t account for the faculty and staff required to accommodate this growth.

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op frGetting an education is about reducing ignorance. Whether it’s in a rural second-grade classroom or at one of this nation’s elite graduate schools, learning is all about gaining a better understanding of the world around us. That might mean studying the religion of another culture or unraveling the DNA of a sea turtle, but the idea is to seek to understand.

That said, I want those who would be our educational leaders to embrace this concept, that of helping students broaden their understanding of the world in which we live. Unfortunately, at least one candidate running for school board in Haywood County displays such a depth of misunderstanding that by my estimation he is not qualified to serve on the school board.

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op frWhen National Newspaper Week (Oct. 5-11) was started 74 years ago, there wasn’t much competition for newspapers. If you didn’t read the paper, you just didn’t know what was going on around the world or in your hometown.

Now that’s not the case. Internet search engines have put thousands of news sites at our fingertips. Social media helps us keep up with friends and family and whole communities of like-minded people.

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I heard about this story from the Facebook crowd, so I imagine some of you have already read it. There was a story in this past Sunday’s Raleigh News and Observer that had this to say about Waynesville and Sylva:

To find the most beer-soaked town in North Carolina, look past the much-acclaimed Asheville. Thirty miles to the west sits Waynesville, a small town of 10,000 nestled between the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains. It’s here where you’ll find four craft breweries – one of the highest brewery-per-capita ratios in the state (www.newsobserver.com/2014/09/04/-4119190_pintful-to-find-ncs-most-beer.html?rh=1#story-link=cpy).

A possible rival is nearby Sylva, a smaller outpost in Western North Carolina where 2,700 people share two breweries.

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op heritageAnyone who reads The Smoky Mountain News regularly knows we emphasize in-depth, investigative stories when that’s what is called for to get to the bottom of something. Everyone at our company takes great pride in that aspect of our identity.

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op fr“Government’s job is NOT to fund private industry!”

“Shouldn’t the mill pay to keep themselves up to par as far as emissions? Why do our tax dollars have to help them? My small business doesn't get help from the state to cover upgrades!”

Those comments above are from our Facebook page in response to a post about the General Assembly’s last-minute decision to come up with $12 million to help Evergreen Packaging in Canton. The money will go to help the company meet EPA-mandated requirements to switch from coal to natural gas in its boilers. The switch is expected to cost around $50 million.

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When Haywood County Manager Jack Horton was asked to resign or be fired last week, it was, potentially, a watershed political event for Haywood County. This upheaval probably won’t have a long-term impact on the prosperity of Haywood County, but it will help shape the political landscape in the near future.

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It started over a discussion about the merits of that sanitizing gel that is now so often found in restrooms, grocery stores, gyms and elsewhere, the stuff that’s supposed to kill germs and stem the spread of colds and other minor illnesses. After a huge bottle showed up in our workplace, one of my co-workers kind of snickered when we were discussing its merits. His comment went something like this: “God, people work too hard to try and protect themselves against everything. It’s like living life in fear.”

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op frMost anyone who has worked for a living, volunteered, or held elected office has stood at the edge of the abyss, looked over it, and made a very important decision: complete honesty and unyielding integrity, or maybe a little dishonesty, maybe a seemingly harmless white lie. The dishonesty might concern office supplies or maybe tools, perhaps a few dollars from the organization no one would miss; for an elected official, it could mean cozying up and getting favors from someone who could benefit from your vote, or perhaps it could mean a little extra money or a gift from such a person.

The situation that The Smoky Mountain News reported about last week concerning the Junaluska Sanitary District is a great illustration of how this happens. The district’s former employee developed a scheme for embezzling a little money each day over a long period of time. Finally caught, she admitted to stealing $210,000 over six years. She repaid it all and did not serve any jail time.

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I remember the specific moment in my journalism career when I sealed my future as a small-town newspaperman. I was at my third newspaper job out of college, had moved up to successively larger publications, and an offer came to take over the editor’s job at a small-town daily.

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There’s really not much to say except this: why has it taken so long?

The Haywood County School Board apparently is going to pass a ban on tobacco products at schools and all school-related events, including football games, graduation ceremonies, and weekend events held at the schools that technically are not school functions.

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When the political season cranks up, as it’s about to, this business gets a lot more fun.

I’m one of those who believe newspapers are the best place to learn about candidates’ positions. We, along with the other print journalists in this region and those across the country, work hard to make these people who want your votes stake out their positions on the important issues. And we’ll try to provide some perspective and background, to put the issue into some kind of context. Most of us view it as a challenge each election season to prove newspapers provide better, more in-depth coverage of candidates that television and even the Internet.

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op frHaywood County’s hospital was in trouble. The average number of patients staying overnight had dropped precipitously, causing severe problems to the hospital’s cash flow. The relationship between the administration and most of the physicians was fractured. Many of those doctors and many Haywood County citizens feared the hospital might close if it didn’t adapt to the fast-changing health care landscape.

Though that sounds eerily similar to just a few years ago, it was 1993. I was a new-to-the-job 33-year-old editor of The Mountaineer in Waynesville. i was just a few months in town when rumblings of the hospital’s woes began trickling out. A group of five or six doctors decided they wanted the local media to hear their side — off the record — and so invited my wife and I to a dinner at one of their homes. 

op fr“Absolutely ridiculous.” Those are the words of Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, to describe the actions of Rep. Michelle Presnell, R-Burnsville, who has twice in two consecutive legislative sessions stopped in its tracks a bill that would merge Lake Junaluska with Waynesville.

Rep. Queen is being too kind by far. Asinine might better describe her opposition to this bill.

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op frTrue story. My wife Lori and I were enjoying a delicious, refreshing IPA at the Wedge Brewery on Sunday afternoon, rewarding ourselves after a brutal trail run in the mid-day heat at Bent Creek (brutal, at least, by my estimation; Lori and our dog, Django, were just loping along the entire time, well ahead of me). The brewery in the Asheville River Arts District was relatively crowded and the sun was blazing, so we shared a shaded table with a couple about our age who invited us to sit after making friends with Django.

We soon found out they were from the Charleston area, he an engineer with Boeing and she a public school secretary. More interesting, however, is why they decided to come to the mountains for a long weekend: beer.

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It happened months back, but the request was typical of what we hear everyday in this business: will you do a story about us?

That’s a request I like to get. We are, after all, in the business of telling stories, whether it’s about your government or your neighbor.

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Amnesty? In the immigration controversy that is dividing Congress and the nation, this has become the most misused term in the politician’s vernacular. It’s being used as wedge by those who favor a policy that is heavy on relentless enforcement and deportation. This policy, instead of celebrating the spirit of hard work that is the backbone of this country’s success, would have us rely instead on the twin weaknesses of insecurity and insularity. That’s not the America I want for our future.

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Note to all candidates seeking office in Western North Carolina, and all their constituents: repeat these words, over and over — zoning, land use, high-impact ordinances, long-range planning, master planning. Say them again, and try to get over the fear they seem to inspire in local politicians. These aren’t bad words, using them won’t deter growth, and advocating for them does not violate any principles of our American way of life. Those who argue they do are simply trying to dupe you through fear into letting them do as they please, which, in the worst case, means make money from raping the land.

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Around the region and throughout the world, there’s a lot going on right now. My “column ideas” folder runneth over, so here’s a little house cleaning, a few random thoughts as the news keep churning:

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Ideas. Those who have them become leaders and gravitate to places where they can implement them. All of the counties of Western North Carolina, including Haywood, need leaders with fresh ideas if we are to confront a future that is bringing untold changes. That was Mark Swanger’s strength, and it will be missed.

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I don’t bash public schools. My wife’s a teacher, my children have gotten a great education at these schools, and we’ve been able to solve every major problem that ever arose with a teacher.

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Each year as summer dawns, when children begin counting the days until shoes become something they just have to keep track of and not wear, I continue a tradition started on June 2, 1999. That was the date the first issue of The Smoky Mountain News was published.

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If you think taking tangible steps to protect farmland is more about nostalgia than anything else, guess again. As change continues at its rapidly accelerating pace, having protected private land on which to grow crops could become an important part of the American economy.

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When Federal Communications Commission officials came to Asheville last week to discuss media ownership regulations, they got an earful from a crowd that was mostly against media consolidation of any kind. We hope FCC officials get this reaction everywhere they go, because the decisions they make in the next few years could have a profound and, perhaps, chilling effect on the media as we know it today.

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“Sausage is good!?”

My 7-year-old son was looking out the window of the van when he blurted the words out of his mouth. We were taking the normal route home, and the cattle herd we pass every day was huddled lazily under one of the few shade trees.

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They didn’t show up. That alone signals, or maybe “symbolizes” is the proper word, a shift in citizen attitudes that would have seemed unimaginable just a couple of years ago.

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I can’t help feeling, just slightly, like we cheated. You be the judge.

The table had been set on our recent family vacation for a trip unlike any I’d ever experienced. We had planned a four-night sailing trip on my father-in-law’s 32-foot sloop “Tranquilo.” My wife Lori and I may joke around at home about who wears the pants, but on the boat there’s no doubt — she dons the captain’s hat. She has sailed for years with her father in the waters around the Neuse River and Pamlico Sound, so he trusts her to get his beloved boat back to its slip safely while we — the kids and I — are the benefactors of a great time.

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People are saying the new Ghost Town will be a shot in the arm for Maggie Valley. That’s probably an understatement, but the new development and its cash infusion into this tourist town will also provide an important opportunity to talk about the future of Western North Carolina, especially as it pertains to the number of visitors and the changing tourism industry.

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As the front page of this week’s paper illustrates, it’s election season. Trouble is, it’s just not feeling much like it yet. U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard, and Heath Shuler, this Democratic challenger from Waynesville, are still mostly preaching to their respective choirs at local party events.

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op frThe rapid pace of change these days often leaves many of us feeling helpless in its wake. Things change, then change some more, and finally a transformation so complete has taken place that very little of what we started with is familiar.

Think the music industry, or what the phone in your pocket will do. Crazy stuff.

But every now and again, one can look around and note things that haven’t changed that much. In some cases that is very reassuring; other times it’s scary.

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op frFor school systems in relatively poor, rural areas where resources are scarce and student achievement is low, there’s no magic bullet that will suddenly transform the public education system. No, it’s mostly just roll-up-your-sleeves hard work by teachers and administrators to make sure the job gets done to the best of one’s ability.

However, getting all of a county’s leaders on the same page so they can at least be educated about the needs and challenges facing teachers and students is a good move, and that’s just what is happening right now in Swain County. If this initial overture turns into a real relationship — and a willingness by county leaders to understand its school system — it will only mean good things for Swain students.

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op frI think Jack Debnam was wise to delay action on the rewrite of the Jackson County steep slope rules until after the November election, but I don’t believe that will take politics out of the final decision on this issue.

No, to the contrary, the county board’s decision to delay action has provided voters with at least one issue to discuss and dissect ad infinitum in the coming election season. Sitting commissioners and candidates alike will be forced to stake out their position, and by the time voters step into the booth on Election Day, they will know where each candidate stands.

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op frWords sometimes change meaning. It may take a few years, but it happens, and it especially happens in politics.

A comment was recently posted on www.smokymountainnews.com in response to a column I wrote two weeks ago about the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority’s request to hike the room tax. The column covered several points, among them my support for increasing the room tax.

 

Within that commenter’s post was this gem of a line: “Scott McLeod, liberal publisher of The Smoky Mountain News and his band of Socialists ….”

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op frSome teacher a long time ago explained to my class of intro to political science undergrads the difference between a statesman and a representative. The statesman, once elected, votes his conscience and does not necessarily bend with the whims of voters; the representative votes according to the wishes of their constituency. That’s a notable difference. What’s confusing, though, is when a leader goes both ways, depending on which is most convenient.

 

As Haywood leaders try to convince Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, to support a hike in the room tax from 4 to 6 percent that almost everyone who holds elected office in the county favors, I was reading what she had said about the tax and trying to figure out where her opposition is coming from.

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op fr“The less you know, the more you believe.”

– Bono

Quality journalism is a powerful force. I’ve been fortunate to be able to witness that truth often during my career in the newspaper business. I’ve seen stories that helped the afflicted, honored the deserving, and brought down the powerful. I’ve been involved in stories that brought tears of joy to a mother’s eyes and tears of regret from an arrogant leader. I’ve held my notebook in hand and listened to someone who asks us for their trust tell such bald-faced lies it shocked even a jaded reporter.

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Haywood’s elected leaders plan to invite their three General Assembly representatives to a March meeting in hopes of reviving a bill that would raise the tax on overnight lodging stays and using the additional money for capital projects to boost tourism. 

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op frThe ramifications of one particularly disturbing directive passed in the last session of the General Assembly is unfolding right now in every county in North Carolina, and it promises to provide some spirited political drama that just about no one saw coming when it passed.

Legislative leaders decided they would provide meager pay raises of $2,000 over four years — yes, a whopping $500 a year — to 25 percent of teachers in each of the state’s school systems. The lawmakers decided it was best to leave it up to each school system to decide how to conjure up a fair formula to decide which teachers would get a raise and which wouldn’t.

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