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Wednesday, 27 January 2016 15:19

Overbuilt? School consolidation targets Central Elementary as collateral damage

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fr centralprincipalsA feasibility report on the potential closure of Central Elementary School in Waynesville was released by Haywood County Schools last week.

The report didn’t explicitly render a conclusion on whether to close Central, but the data in the report largely seemed to point toward its imminent closure.

The report frequently referenced a $2.4 million budget shortfall facing the school system as the impetus for closing Central, along with data showing all nine of the county’s elementary schools are operating well below capacity — signaling the school system has more buildings than it can justify keeping.

Central Elementary School Principal Jeanann Yates said she is very saddened by the possibility of Central closing, however, and hopes there’s a way it can be avoided.

“I am remaining hopeful that another resolution will be found,” Yates said. “However, the reality of such a huge budget deficit is very apparent. “

Although this is her first year as the principal at Central, Yates said she quickly developed a deep love for the school and its community. Central is the oldest elementary school in the county and one of the last real neighborhood schools that students can still walk to.

“Central has been such a long-standing tradition and an integral part of this community,” Yates said. “I love Central and our sweet students and can’t imagine not coming to Central every day.”

Yates expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support Central’s teachers and staff have received.

The nine-member Haywood County School board will vote on whether to close Central at its next meeting on Monday, Feb. 8. If approved, it would close at the end of this school year.

The report released last week is required under a state statute that lays out the procedure for closing a public school. The statute also requires a public hearing, which will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27, at Central.

 

The students

The report cited Central’s shrinking enrollment in recent years and predicted it would continue. It is the second smallest elementary school in the county, with just two classes per grade.

Meanwhile, two other elementary schools within a two-mile radius could easily absorb Central’s student body.

“There should be no great inconvenience or hardship of the students due to the proximity of Hazelwood Elementary School and Junaluska Elementary School,” the report concludes.

About 115 students from Central would be sent to Hazelwood and 95 would be sent to Junaluska. If the school board votes to close Central, school officials will dive into the details of divvying up students between Hazelwood and Junaluska and reassigning Central’s feeder neighborhoods into one of the other two elementary school districts.

Hazelwood Principal Wendy Rogers said families from Central would be welcomed with open arms.

“Whether they end up at Hazelwood or Junaluska, they will be in good hands. Because of the community we live in, I think the parents and students alike will be embraced,” said Rogers, who was the principal at Central until this year.

Rogers said Hazelwood’s students will be ready to put their training as a national Leader in Me School to work.

“It will be a great way for them to step up and use the leadership skills they have been building and make those students feel welcome from day one,” Rogers said.

If the school board votes to close Central, she said her first step would be putting together a transition team.

SEE ALSO: From worst-case scenario to sinking reality: the evolution of closing a school

 

The staff

Closing Central would save $500,000 annually — about a third of that in overhead and the rest in staff reductions.

Central has 22 teachers and staff.

“Does that mean those people will lose their jobs if we close? No, it does not,” Superintendent Anne Garrett said during a presentation of the report to school principals during one of last week’s snow days. “If you have 90 children going to Junaluska, of course you are going to have to add teachers there.”

Only nine of the 22 positions now at Central would be cut, according to the report. But that still doesn’t spell layoffs, Garrett said.

“We think there are enough retirements creating openings each year that they would be able to keep their jobs, but at another site,” Garrett said.

 

The building

The report also addressed rumors about what the school system would do with Central if it closes.

“There are a lot of rumors out there — we’ve already sold it, someone else has already moved in to it, we’ve swapped it,” Garrett said in jest.

None of those are true, and any scenario would be a long way off, she said.

School officials say they don’t know what they would do with the Central yet, and they aren’t willing to speculate since the school board technically hasn’t voted to close Central.

“We don’t know what their decision is going to be. We can guess, but until they vote, the decision is not made,” Garrett said. 

Despite Central’s age — it was built in 1954 — it’s actually in good shape, according to a facility assessment. Nonetheless, routine maintenance and upgrades would be unavoidable over the next decade, from a new roof and paint job to flooring and HVAC. Closing Central would avert $400,000 in maintenance costs that would otherwise be incurred over the next decade, the report found.

 

The unspoken story

The report released last week was brief and mostly technical in nature. It made no reference to the process for how Central would be closed, or how the school system would help students and parents navigate the transition.

“We didn’t want to be presumptive in telling people what that would look like,” Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte said.

The most striking chart in the report shows just how much extra space there is in all of Haywood County’s schools. The nine elementary schools in Haywood County are only at two-thirds of their total capacity on average — with room to spare for another 1,500 students across all the elementary schools.

Ironically, Central is closer to capacity than any of the other nine elementary schools. 

But Central is smaller to start with and has been losing students at a faster pace.

It lost 40 students over the past two years, according to the report. A decline would likely continue, but how much is unclear.

“One of the requirements was to estimate what the future enrollment would be. That is very difficult to do,” Garrett said. “But it is reasonable to predict the school population will continue to decrease.”

Why is another story, one the report didn’t address. While the school system as a whole has witnessed a decline in students, the loss at Central is three times higher — it lost 16 percent of its student body over the past two years compared to 5 percent in the school system overall.

That fact wasn’t included in the report, however. Nor did the report offer an explanation of why Central’s seen a larger decline.

Central used to be an arts magnet school that integrated arts into the curriculum. Students living anywhere in the county could opt to attend Central, even if it wasn’t their assigned elementary school district. They still can, but without the arts magnet status, far fewer do.

Central’s population decline also stems from the demographic shift of in-town neighborhoods that feed it.

Meanwhile, however, Central lost a larger percentage of its student body to the new Shining Rock Classical Academy charter school than any other elementary school in the county. That wasn’t in the report either.

Nor did the report mention that Central’s poverty rate is higher than average compared to the other elementary schools, or that its minority population is the highest, or that its test scores are the lowest, according to school statistics kept by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. 

In the latest school report cards, where the state dishes out a letter grade to every school, Central was the only elementary school in Haywood County that got a C. The rest got Bs, and one got an A+.

That doesn’t exactly make Central an underperforming school, however.

Comparing Central to the other elementary schools in Haywood County isn’t entirely fair, given that Haywood County is one of the top-performing public school districts academically in the state.

It ranks in the top 15 percent in academic performance, according to state test scores. And based on the latest letter grade scoring system for schools, Haywood is in the top 10 percent.

“Haywood County Schools is among only 10 of 115 school districts in North Carolina to have no D or F schools,” Nolte said in a press release two months ago when letter grades came out.

 

 

Learn more, speak out

A public hearing on the possible closure of Central Elementary School will be held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 27, at the school.

It was initially planned for Tuesday, but concerns over lingering hazardous road conditions that kept schools closed Tuesday prompted Haywood school officials to bump the hearing back a day. A public hearing is required by state statue in a school closure.

Before the meeting, students and parents from Central Elementary will hold a rally and march protesting the possible closure of their school. All are invited to meet at Central at 5:30 p.m. and join the walk to downtown and back.

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