“I think the county commissioners and school board have got to come together,” said John Wadsworth, a Waynesville resident who spoke during the public comment period of a county meeting Monday. “Get out of the box and figure out a way to solve this.”
The school system is facing a $2.4 million shortfall due in part to dwindling classroom education funding from the state, and in part to a declining student body. Budget cuts to close the gap include a controversial plan to shut down and consolidate Central Elementary School.
Wadsworth, who has grandchildren in the public school system, said there’s too much finger pointing and hand wringing and not enough problem solving.
“I think it is time to try to come up with a solution. I think this is a local issue you have got to take care of,” Wadsworth said. “I think it will take more money from the county.”
It’s not the first time commissioners have heard that refrain in recent weeks — whether in passing, in letters to the editor or in public forums. Mark Melrose, a Central Elementary parent, urged the school board to ask the county to pony up.
“The commissioners will give the money if you stand up and tell them you are not going to take anything less than the half a million it takes to keep this thing open,” Melrose said at a public hearing on whether to close Central three weeks ago.
At their county meeting this week, commissioners deviated briefly from their agenda to respond.
“We do a great job funding our schools,” Commissioner Mark Swanger said.
The county ranks in the top 25 percent statewide in its per student funding of the school system. Among mountain counties, only Buncombe, Transylvania and Watauga give more per student than Haywood, according to annual funding comparison reports, Swanger said.
To date, school officials haven’t asked for a bail out, not even when they met with county leaders last month to brief them on the school budget situation.
“They didn’t ask for additional funding. They understood the county couldn’t make up the difference in the funding cuts,” Swanger said in an interview.
But Wadsworth questioned why the county is spending $3 million on a new animal shelter or $1.5 million on a new emergency services headquarters.
“All these are great things but they aren’t things that have to be done. Right now is not the time to do these until we solve the problem in our schools,” said Wadsworth, former chief financial officer for Blue Ridge Paper. “We are going to have to really figure out how to prioritize our spending.”
But even if Haywood anted up more money to plug the shortfall this year, what about next year, Swanger said.
“The expenses the schools have are recurring expenses you have every single year. That number, unless they address it, would be there every single year,” Swanger said. “That would take a huge appropriation every year.”
Since state funding is predicated on student head count, the decline in student body is a stark reality that must be dealt with, Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said.
“They have been dealt a pretty difficult hand,” Kirkpatrick said.
Haywood County Schools has lost nearly 800 students in 10 years.
“To me that’s the issue,” said Wadsworth. “They need to be looking at a good strategic plan.”
Commissioner Bill Upton, former superintendent of the school system, said demographics have played a large role.
“Not as many children are being born in Haywood County as there used to be. Families aren’t as big as they used to be,” Upton said.
But the school system has likewise lost hundreds of students to charter schools and homeschooling over the past decade.
Commissioner Kevin Ensley agreed with Wadsworth, however. If the decline in student body reversed, it would bring more money back in.
“We do need to find solutions with the school board to get that (student) number up,” Ensley said. “Everything is based on that number. We just have to find creative solutions to get that number up.”
Commissioners made a point of noting that how the school system balances its budget — and whether closing Central is part of the solution — is up to the school board, commissioners said.
“It is not really our decision what they do,” Kirkpatrick said.
Swanger, former school board chairman, said there’s a business side to running a school system, and it’s simply not efficient to operate more school buildings than you need to serve the student body.
“You have to make good business decisions,” Swanger said.
Candidates on schools
Education was a top topic among Haywood commissioner candidates at a forum last week hosted by The Mountaineer. Namely candidates were asked whether the county should increase its funding for the school system.Here’s some sound bites of what they said.
“The county commissioners have made a strong commitment to public education. We have to leave no stone unturned and we have to provide whatever means necessary to help the school system.”
— Steve Brown, Democrat, who cited education as his top priority.
“I just don’t believe in throwing money at things. It comes back to the teachers. And to the parents. Some of these kids can run over the teachers. I think it is up to the teachers learning how to teach again, having some good teachers.”
— Greg Burrell, Republican
“I’ve heard a whole lot about schools. I got a bunch of kids and I always thought we had good schools. We need to put everything we can into education to get the best schools.”
— Terry Ramey, Democratic candidate
“I want my kids to grow up in Haywood County and go to public schools. I am a big supporter of our local schools.”
— Brandon Rogers, Republican, who named education as one of the top three issues facing the county.
“This problem was talked about in ’08, back when I was on the board. We knew if there was a perfect storm we may have to close one of the smaller schools.”
— Robin Black, former school board member, who cited education as one of the top three issues facing the county.
“I think they need to find ways to raise their (student population) number. It’s the number all the school funding is based on but it’s gone down. Charter schools are legal in the state. It is another opportunity. Some parents want to choose that.”
— Kevin Ensley, Republican.
The March 15 primary will narrow the slate to two candidates from each party.