Community involvement is the key

election time largeTo the Editor:

I won’t be voting for Michele Presnell, but it seems silly for this newspaper and local elected officials to blame her for the failure of local initiatives like the proposed room tax increase, school funding issues that influenced the closing of Central Elementary and the failure of the proposed Lake Junaluska/Waynesville merger to get on the ballot. Maybe part of the problem is we’re not doing enough to engage our citizens in information exchange or dialogue.

Local elected officials have many tools available to them in addition to their regular meetings to promote public awareness and analysis of all types of issues they address. They can hold public forums, appoint task forces and study committees, assign staff to gather research and make presentations. I like it when local governments use these kinds of tools. At a minimum, they help bring local stakeholders together in ways that encourage them to share current experiences and information and work toward a consensus. In addition, they allow local media to cover the discussion as it progresses, instead of only when the elected body is ready to vote, and that contributes to broader public awareness.

Sometimes these types of local efforts serve as an effective counterbalance to the finger-pointing, grandstanding and selective information we see during election years, especially ones as bombastic as this one. That’s why it’s encouraging to see the Board of Commissioners appoint a task force to examine issues related to housing and homelessness, as they wait to see if the proposed housing project at the old hospital will move forward in August. It hasn’t been all that long ago that we had similar local efforts on both tourism and education. Maybe there are lessons there to revisit.

If memory serves, the last time Haywood County was granted an increase in the room tax by the General Assembly was in 2007, after the board of commissioners appointed a tourism committee to study the issue and make recommendations. I attended those meetings and some of them weren’t easy. Not everyone wanted the room tax increase, and some meetings got pretty heated, but enough did to recommend it to commissioners. Even then, when the committee made its presentation to commissioners, some members spoke against it. However, there was a strong enough consensus for it to proceed and it passed the General Assembly on the first try. The most recent effort has failed at least twice, as I recall.

Of course, the higher room tax went into effect about the same time that the nation’s economy tanked, which probably impacted travel budgets for a lot of people, so who knows whether the increased revenue the room tax generated helped Haywood County all that much or not. It might have been nice to convene another committee of tourism stakeholders to see what we’ve learned in the last eight years, and discuss the pros and cons of the last room tax increase, before seeking another one from the General Assembly.

In addition, some 15-16 years ago, the board of education formed a citizen’s task force to develop a long-range plan for our school system. As the task force did its work, the community got the opportunity to learn more about funding and other issues our schools were facing, and to understand the short-term and long-term goals that emerged from the process. Maybe if we’d had such a task force in the last few years, teachers, parents and students wouldn’t have felt so blindsided by the closing of Central Elementary, and there would have been more awareness in the community that we faced having to close a school. 

 According to the Haywood County budget adopted last May, commissioners gave the school system an additional $292,890 in revenue for 2015-16, with no restrictions on how they spent it. That’s more than half the annual cost of operating Central Elementary, according to information presented in this newspaper in January. In addition, the county budget included over $100,000 in additional funds for capital outlay. That’s not a lot of money and it couldn’t all have been used for Central, and it doesn’t address funding cuts at the state level in recent years. Still, it feels like some pieces of the funding puzzle are missing. Is next year’s projected $2.4 million shortfall in the Haywood County Schools budget the product of several years of state funding cuts, new cuts in the current state budget or both? Shouldn’t we expect less funding, and, theoretically, less cost, if our school system is serving fewer students every year?

I’m not asking because I agree with education funding cuts, and I don’t dispute what this newspaper’s editorial said about the importance of education funding as a election issue. Nor do I agree with Presnell’s charges that it was due to poor management by our school system. Still, it’s important to help local citizens understand how to connect the dots between local budget processes and changes coming from Raleigh in ways that minimize political posturing and encourage real dialogue. 

It used to be that the board of education and the commissioners held a joint public meeting each year early in the annual budget process and separate from their regular meetings, to discuss what issues, funding and otherwise, the school system was facing and how it would affect their budget request to the county. Now key staff and a few elected officials meet privately and work out the funding details and often the only chance the public gets to hear what’s being considered is near the end of the process when the issue is scheduled for a vote.

Last April, for example, both boards met separately on the same night to consider and approve a three-year funding resolution that was developed mostly in private meetings. Interested citizens would have had to choose between one meeting or the other to monitor the discussion and try to understand what was going on, and very little information was provided on what specific factors they considered in determining the three-year formula. A month later, during a public hearing on the county budget, school officials praised the funding formula and the good working relationship with commissioners. So, how did we get from there to a discussion about closing a school that started in January?

I’m not really convinced that the timing of the discussion of Central’s closing is only about budget concerns and losing students. Some have speculated that it’s related to the development of Shining Rock Academy, but I wonder if it’s not tied to other projects getting underway, such as the proposed low-income housing project at the old hospital. If that project proceeds, I believe the County is required to provide adequate space for school system administrative offices. If that has to happen quickly, it seems like a logical choice for the school system to move its administrative offices to Central, at least temporarily.

Maybe school and county staff and elected officials have been using the same strategy for Central Elementary that seemed to have worked with the funding formula — hold as much of the discussion as possible in private, but agree to a template for public discussion. That seems to be a common strategy in recent years as public discourse has become more contentious. Official meetings are only to formalize behind-the-scenes discussions. One wonders how the remaining members of both boards get the information they need to get up to speed, since there’s so little public discussion before the issue is put to a vote. Do the board members who attend the private meetings divvy up the remaining members and brief them? Do they go over to a corner at other public functions and brief them there? Do staff members call or email the remaining board members, or meet with them privately, and fill them in that way?

Maybe everyone who will be displaced by closing Central should ponder that as they mourn the loss of of their school and await word on what will happen to the property. According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction website, 18 public schools across North Carolina closed in July 2015, so it’s not like it’s that unusual. Still, it cuts deep into the heart of a community and there should have been a way for us to see it coming and talk about it for longer than a few months.  I wonder if those 18 communities had a more public discussion before the schools closed.

Regarding the proposed Lake Junaluska-Waynesville merger, I’m not sure we should blame Presnell alone for blocking the attempt to get the voter referendum. Despite a well-documented advocacy effort to build support for the project that included letters from key local organizations, it still seemed geared toward bypassing real public dialogue. For me, there’s a fundamental question of when, if ever, it’s appropriate for local taxpayers to shoulder costs associated with assisting a religious conference center, no matter how valuable it is to the community. I also would have liked information on how other religious retreat centers in western N.C. operate, how they relate to local governments, and how that compares/contrasts with the Junaluska-Waynesville proposal.  Between Montreat, Ridgecrest, Bonclarken, Kanuga and others, there’s no shortage of examples to evaluate. Though I don’t live within town limits and wouldn’t have been able to vote, that kind of information might have been useful before holding a referendum, instead of just a litany of who’s for it.

I don’t often make decisions based on who’s endorsing something, I need something more than that. In a recent essay, author Parker J. Palmer wrote that the more often we turn outward for help, the more likely we are to forget what’s close at hand. He suggested it was always tempting to play the “if only” game — “If only we could raise enough money to fund this important project … If only we could amass enough firepower to make our neighborhood safe ... If only we could elect more true public servants to political office.” Palmer stated that, yes, there are times when we need resources from “out there” to help solve big problems, but the odds of finding solutions increase dramatically when we begin “in here.” 

If Presnell is the only reason these issues didn’t go as local officials hoped, she seems to have accumulated a lot of influence in a relatively short period. I don’t buy it. I think our own limited public discourse affected these outcomes and it would be nice to have local media that still held elected officials accountable for how far they’ve moved away from how much they’re letting the public see of their decision-making process. We’re not supposed to see only the end of that process, we’re supposed to see and understand the process from beginning to end, and have the opportunity to comment or raise questions all along the way.

Like Palmer said, our odds of getting what we need “out there” may dramatically increase if we begin with what we have “in here.” At some point, our community, our state and our nation must learn how to create civil public discourse again. Why can’t Haywood County be a model for that?

If I’m going to help get a train rolling, I’d rather it be for that.

David Teague


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