While parents, teachers and students of Central Elementary School in Waynesville are struggling to cope with the prospect of their school closing, a political firestorm has erupted over who’s to blame for the impending $2.4 million budget shortfall confronting the Haywood school system.
Democratic candidates running for state office have been quick to pin fault on state Republican policies that have eroded public education. Rhonda Schandevel, a Haywood school board member running for the state House, said blame lies with state policies backed by her opponent, incumbent Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Spruce Pine.
“Michele Presnell has continually voted to cut millions of dollars from our public education budget, making it clear that our children are not her priority,” Schandevel said. “I am ashamed that Michele Presnell has backed us into this corner.”
Presnell deflected the criticism, however. She said it is disingenuous to blame the state — or to blame charter schools for diverting students and money from the public schools.
“It is shameful when people in the public trust actively mislead the public,” Presnell said. “Let’s work together to make Haywood County Schools a place where parents want to send their children, not divisively make false statements and disparage alternative educational opportunities.”
Meanwhile, N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, was being taken to task by his two-time Democratic opponent Jane Hipps of Waynesville.
“The possible closure of Central Elementary is a tangible and real outcome of the voting record of my opponent who has consistently voted to cut funding to public schools,” said Hipps, a retired public school educator.
Davis said the state is being used as a scapegoat.
“It is really easy for the school board to say to the parents and teachers and staff of Central ‘I’m sorry, the state screwed us over,’” Davis said. “If they blame the state, they don’t have to take ownership of their decision to close the school.”
The consolidation of smaller, neighborhood schools isn’t a new trend, nor one isolated to Haywood, Davis said. He has seen it play out in his own county of Macon in recent years, and agrees it is emotionally difficult.
“Wouldn’t it be terrible if the parents and teachers and community didn’t love that school, if they weren’t so attached to it? It is a great thing that they are,” Davis said.
Charter school card
Haywood schools has witnessed an arresting drop in student body over the past few years, and is perhaps an even larger factor in the funding shortage. Fewer students equates to less funding for the school system. The drop is due to demographic changes — namely out-migration and a lower birth rate during the recession.
But it’s also due in part to a rise in charter schools that get a cut of the funding that used to go to the traditional school system.
Presnell said the school system should look within.
“Why is Central's student body dwindling? Many point to the charter schools, but it is important to ask — what are these other schools able to offer that Central cannot?” Presnell said.
The drop in student body has been seen across the county, however, not just at Central. Only about 20 students left Central to go to the newly opened charter school Shining Rock Classical Academy, according to enrollment data.
Percentagewise that’s more than any other school lost, but that’s largely due to Central’s smaller student body in the first place of 235 students.
The reason Central is targeted for closure is a simple matter of logistics and geography, Superintendent Anne Garrett said. There’s two other elementary schools in close proximity to Central — both within a two-mile radius — that could absorb its students.
Shining Rock Board Chair Tara Keilberg said the notion to consolidate Central has most likely been an idea floating around for some time, and is not a “fiscal emergency as the administration has made it seem in recent days.”
She also defended the right of Shining Rock to exist in the education landscape.
“It is truly great that we live in a state where we can utilize school choice, since education is not a ‘one size fits all’ endeavor,” Keilberg said.
Supporters of Shining Rock have been weighing in on the debate online and deflecting the role of charter schools in bringing on the funding crisis for Haywood’s traditional public schools.
“Blaming the charter school is an easy scapegoat,” Carolyn Lacey, who has a grandchild at Shining Rock, wrote in response to a Smoky Mountain News article online.
It’s impossible to ignore the numbers, however.
Between 155 and 175 students are now at Shining Rock who would otherwise be in the traditional public school system, according to enrollment data. (Between 20 and 25 percent of the total 235 students at Shining Rock were home-schooled or went to private schools previously.)
The loss of students means less funding coming to Haywood schools that must be made up somewhere.
Davis said that’s just the reality.
“If you don’t have the students, why should you get the funding?” Davis asked.
All told, 265 students from Haywood County go to charter schools — be it Shining Rock, a charter school elsewhere in the region or one of the new online charter schools.
Presnell said that’s fair.
“Parents of students in home schools, in virtual charter schools and at Shining Rock Elementary made the choice to take their children out of Haywood County schools, and they deserve a proper education just as much as students in Haywood County Schools,” Presnell said.
Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte said the school system has not passed judgment on the merits or demerits of charter schools in general, or Shining Rock in particular.
He has simply stated as a fact the number of students now attending charter schools and its impact on the budget. The school system was obligated to explain how the $2.4 million shortfall came about. Charter school enrollment is indeed a factor, so it was cited along with the other factors, but that’s shouldn’t be misinterpreted as condemning charter schools.
“It is inappropriate for anyone to apply additional meaning to my comments about charter schools,” Nolte said.
Presnell has offered to work with the Haywood County School system to find solutions. But Schandevel countered that Presnell has never been to a Haywood School board meeting during the four years she’s been a legislator, adding that Presnell spent last Monday touring the company headquarters of Lowe’s Home Improvement in Mooresville with an entourage of Republican lawmakers while Schandevel was in a school board meeting wrestling over the painful budget crisis befalling the schools.
“While I was on the frontlines this past Monday fighting to keep our schools funded and open she was busy outside our district rubbing elbows with corporate donors,” Schandevel said. “This makes one wonder if she shares our mountain values.”