Macon group vows to fight proposed school consolidation

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

As Macon County officials move forward with plans to build two new schools, community schools in Cowee, Iotla and Cullasaja could close their doors forever.

Residents like Guy Gooder don’t think that’s such a good idea, and he’s leading an effort to preserve the three schools. Gooder, a former Macon County School Board member, is spearheading a grassroots organization called Citizens for Community Schools and Quality Education to formulate a plan to stop school consolidation.

“We are trying to get an outside group on this issue,” Gooder said.

Administrative officials say the school district is in dire need of two new facilities to eliminate the district of its 28 portable classrooms and increase student capacity at Macon Middle School.

Voters rejected a bond referendum in November that would have paid for construction of two new schools — one for grades kindergarten through four and another for grades five and six. County commissioners are on record as being committed to seeing these projects move forward.

“You might have said no to the school bond referendum, but this board has not said no to the school system. I for one will proceed to see that the needs are meet for Macon County students,” Commissioner Chairman Charlie Leatherman said.

Commissioners have secured 29 acres of land along Clarks Chapel Road which will be the future home of the new grades five and six school. County officials are also looking into alternative ways to finance the nearly $40 million the two projects are expected to cost.

Seeing both of these projects come to fruition is prompting residents like Gooder to prepare a plan of action.

“When the people voted against it, we thought the plan wouldn’t be funded,” Gooder said.

He is also calling for county officials to conduct a feasibility study to determine if building new schools is a better solution than renovating the current facilities. The county did conduct a study 10 years ago, Gooder says, but the information is outdated.

Macon County School Board Vice Chairman Tommy Cabe is not surprised by residents’ reaction to the closing of community schools.

“They griped about it back when I was in school,” Cabe said.

He says that community schools used to be important when people traveled around using a horse and buggy, but times have changed. “The communities are not like they were back in the day,” he said.

The group will meet Feb. 26 at the Macon County Community Facilities Building.

Gooder is encouraging parents, educators and even school board members to attend the event. He hopes that the meeting will spur new ideas. Gooder plans to present the board of commissioners with some alternative ideas generated from this meeting.

The meeting will feature a presentation by Gooder on the implications and effects that consolidating schools have upon a community.

“They are very negative,” Gooder said.


A sense of community

Mark Swanger, former chairman of both the Haywood County school and county boards, knows the effects school consolidation can have on a community.

Swanger witnessed the negative impacts the closing of Fines Creek Elementary had upon the community he lives, and it prompted him to run for a seat on the school board.

“There is less community involvement than previously,” he said.

According to Swanger, the board of education voted in the early 1990s to close Fines Creek Elementary School and consolidate with Crabtree Elementary into the new Riverbend Elementary School.

Since the consolidation of the two schools, he says Riverbend Elementary has had to be enlarged.

“It’s only a matter of time that additional schools will have to be built,” Swanger said.


Bigger is not always better

As Western North Carolina continues to be a hot spot for in-migration, Haywood, Macon, Jackson and Swain county school districts are seeing an increase in students, which is causing school officials to construct larger facilities.

However, sometimes having larger schools is not the best answer, says Mary Jean Herzog, a Western Carolina University professor of education.

“Education in the U.S. has been focused on bigger is better,” she said.

School officials often build larger schools because they are more economical; however, smaller schools can be just as cost effective, she said. Consolidating schools means students have longer bus rides and the community is less involved.

“Sometimes all a community has is one school,” she said. “When the school leaves a community, it can create a negative impact. It leaves the community devoid of a place to get together.”

“The school provides a real natural meeting place and it also keeps kids in the community,” she added.

Herzog added that smaller schools could be retrofitted to accommodate the influx of students.

“It’s just a matter of changing your perspective,” she said.

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