Gathering on the steps outside the school board meeting, parents listened to speeches condemning state policies that have undermined traditional public education — from systematic classroom cuts to diverting money to charter schools.
“Central Elementary is the epitome of what is right in North Carolina schools and we are not willing to let it be sacrificed because of Raleigh’s agenda to weaken our public school systems dollar by dollar,” said Beth Pratt, the mother of two children at Central. “We won’t bend to the close-fisted tactics from the state. Let’s be the spark that ignites the changes we so desperately need in Raleigh.”
School board member Jimmy Rogers stepped outside to join the rally and address the parents and students huddled under umbrellas.
Rogers said state legislators have chosen to give “tax breaks for those at the top” instead of adequately funding public schools.
Given the great schools in Haywood County — ranked 15th in the state in academic performance — if it can happen here, it could happen anywhere, Rogers said.
“We are just a canary in a coal mine,” Rogers said.
That sentiment was echoed by John deVille, a teacher in Macon County who’s active with the N.C. Association of Educators.
“You are at the leading edge of a perfect storm,” deVille told the crowd.
DeVille said the plight of Central is a self-fulfilling prophecy brought on by a systematic dismantling of public education that has generational implications, he said.
“Upward mobility is being betrayed,” deVille said. “The American dream is founded on equality of opportunity.”
DeVille urged the crowd gathered outside the school board meeting last week to turn their anger into action.
“Go home tonight and write down why you are mad and why you are hurt and how you feel and put it on your refrigerator. Come November 8, take it down and read it and put it in your pocket when you go to the polls,” deVille said. “Reverse this course.”
A few days later, N.C. Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, whose district includes part of Haywood County, issued a public statement to media deflecting the criticism and turning the tables.
Presnell said the budget woes and closure of Central by the school board were “an unfortunate consequence of its members’ own failures.”
Presnell has repeatedly issued media statements and opinion pieces to local papers in recent weeks, calling out school officials for passing the buck rather than taking responsibility.
“My constituents have been fed a narrative of education cuts spread by people who have a lot to lose — and stand to look quite foolish — when the truth is realized,” Presnell said.
School board member Rhonda Schandevel, a Haywood Democrat, hopes to unseat Presnell in the fall.
Schandevel has a primary election to win in March before she advances to the ballot against Presnell. The public relations battle Presnell is waging to deflect state blame for Central’s closure could be critical in whether she wins or looses against Schandevel, who has positioned herself as the pro-education candidate.
Presnell has asserted the school system has technically gotten more money per student, not less. On paper, that’s true.
“Those who report and continue to repeat the same tired lie that education funding has been cut are doing a disservice to the community by simply not reporting the facts. It’s an insult to state taxpayers who fund our state’s schools at the greatest level in history,” Presnell said in a statement. However, the additional education funding doled out didn’t go to the nuts-and-bolts of education but instead went to teacher salary increases. Technically, the school system is getting more, but in reality, it has less to spend on the classroom.
Here’s the math, according to Presnell’s own numbers in her various statements:
• Haywood got an increase of $1.6 million in teacher salaries over four years despite the number of teachers dropping.
• However, Haywood’s total education budget from the state — including the increase for teacher salaries — is only $600,000 more.
• That amounts to a budget shortage of $1 million, since the school system is forking over an additional $1.6 million to cover state pay raises for teachers but has seen a total increase of only $600,000.
On top of that, the school system has seen a $500,000 cut in education lottery money it gets from the state.
Presnell called school officials “shameful” for blaming Central’s closure on state budget cuts.
School board member Jimmy Rogers took issue with that.
“If they are going to call a public school administrator shameful, yes, I am going to stand up,” said Rogers, who penned his own guest column to local papers in response.
Presnell claims blame lies with the school board for mismanagement.
“Fault lies with Haywood County School Board members for their gross mismanagement of resources,” Presnell said in a statement last week.
deVille called that asinine.
“They chastised the Haywood County School Board for mismanaging their funds. That’s like flying over and dropping a bomb on a house and it has a leaky roof and you blame the homeowner,” deVille said.
Josh Pratt, the father of two students at Central, also called out Presnell by name.
“You’ve accepted no blame for this and repeatedly laid all of the blame on the local school board,” Josh Pratt said. “You haven’t worked with our school board at all to find solutions, you’ve only continued to blame them.”
Charter school factor
Some drew a correlation between the closing of Central with the opening of Shining Rock Classical Academy charter school, which drew more money away from the already struggling public school system.
“Central Elementary shouldn’t have to close so that Shining Rock can exist. We must demand our representatives support public education and not the double-talk of ‘school choice,’” Josh Pratt said. “We need our school board to make a stand and not set a precedent of closing public schools when charter schools come to town.”
Between 155 and 170 students who would otherwise be attending Haywood County Schools went to Shining Rock when it opened this year, according to enrollment records. The loss of those students amounted to around $1 million in lost state and local funding that the school system would otherwise be getting but is now going to Shining Rock.
“By diverting money to private and charter schools in our state we are taking from the many to give to the few. I’m not willing to trade my child’s school for another parent’s choice,” Beth Pratt said.
But Presnell said that’s how it should be.
“When a parent decides to take his or her child out of Haywood County Schools, school funding follows that child wherever he goes,” Presnell said in a written statement. “Money also follows children when they transfer to charter schools.”
Presnell said Shining Rock should not get blamed since there has been a steady decline in Haywood’s student body even before Shining Rock opened.
Haywood has seen a drop of 800 students over the past 10 years, due in part to demographic changes from outmigration and a lower birth rate during the recession.
This year was the most sizeable hit, with a loss of 220 students. Presnell said it was disingenuous, however, to call the decrease “sudden” or “unexpected.”
“But we may leave semantics and other such trivial matters to the uninformed media who continue to incorrectly report on this issue,” Presnell said.
Beth Pratt questioned why charter schools should get public money when they don’t have door-to-door buses, free lunch or subsidized after-school care — and thus aren’t truly accessible to all.
“They are nothing more than publicly funded private schools,” Beth Pratt said.
Her husband, Josh Pratt, said he doesn’t blame the parents attending Shining Rock, as most likely did not realize the impact their choice would have on others’ schools.
But, “You can rest assured that the core founders and money behind Shining Rock knew full well, and didn’t care,” Josh Pratt said, citing the national foundation funded by conservative donors that helped launch Shining Rock. “Shining Rock Classical Academy is not a worthy substitute for Central Elementary. Central Elementary shouldn’t have to close so that Shining Rock can exist.”