“I love this school because it is welcoming and feels like home. It is a place I look forward to going to and learning and growing,” said Landry Wilson, an 11-year-old student at Central. “Generations and generations have gone to this school. The loss of this school would leave a big gaping hole in the community.”
Many in the audience sobbed as students talked about losing what to them has been the center of their world as long as they can remember.
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“If the school closes down, that’s like memories going away. All my memories are here. I spent 180 days times six here. I am not really good with math, but that’s a lot,” said fifth-grader Alex Castro.
Even school board members blinked back tears as children stood before them, begging them not to close the school they love and turn their world upside down.
“I ask you to make this answer with your heart and not with your head,” said Sandy Clontz, a teacher at Central.
But for school board members weighing the decision, there’s more at play than the raw emotions displayed at last week’s hearing.
Haywood County Schools is facing a $2.4 million budget shortfall, brought on by the trifecta of a declining student body, state budget cuts to classroom education and charter school competition.
There are nine elementary schools in the Haywood County school system, and many are far below their maximum capacity. The school system simply has more school buildings than they really need to accommodate the student population.
“We are maintaining and operating schools that are significantly below capacity. This is a costly and ineffective use of taxpayer dollars,” School Board Chairman Chuck Francis said at the outset of the public hearing, explaining the unpleasant reality behind it all.
Closing Central would save $500,000 a year. But students couldn’t fathom why a little thing like money should rob them of their school.
Posters ringed the cafeteria during the public hearing asking for donations, some with handmade envelopes stapled to them asking people to “Put coins here” to help save Central.
Central student Zachary Smith asked why they couldn’t just find some money somewhere.
“If every store in North Carolina just gave, like, 20 percent, we could still have our school,” Smith said.
Clontz recounted how one student came up to her the week before and handed her an envelope to pass along to the principal.
“She said ‘Can you please give this to Mrs. Yates? We opened up that envelope and inside it was $42 with a note that said ‘Please use this to help keep our school open,’” Clontz recounted. “They know it takes money, but they don’t really understand. That $42 — to her it was $500,000 that she gave.”
Parents also urged the school board to look beyond the numbers.
“Please don’t close Central just for financial reasons,” said Angela Benson, a parent of a Central student. “It is affecting so many children.”
Many speakers touched on the close-knit, nurturing environment Central is known for.
“I can stand up here and name every single kid in this school because I love them,” said Joanna Pace, a Central teacher battling through tears as she spoke.
“We are family here,” said Chris Williamson, Central’s PTA president.
Central is one of the smallest elementary schools in the county, with a student body of 230 students. Its small size has become a liability and made it a target for closure, but it’s also its greatest strength.
“Central is a small school and an old school. That is why I love this school so much,” said Sarah Elizabeth Super, a student at Central. “Central is such a big part of me being who I am.”
Emily Chin, now a high school student, took a turn at the mic during the hearing to speak up for the younger students at Central.
“What would happen if this school did close down? Would it ruin their lives? They would lose all their friends. They would have to go to another school where they don’t know anyone,” Chin said.
The majority of Central’s 230 students would be divvied up between nearby Hazelwood and Junaluska elementary schools. Both are within a 2-mile radius, but to students who would be uprooted from Central, the other schools may as well be on another planet.
“I don’t want to move. I don’t want to lose my friends. Why do we have to suffer for it?” asked Central student Zachary Smith.
Several parents said the one-on-one attention teachers are able to give students at Central thanks to its smaller environment was absolutely critical to their kids’ success.
Central Parent Travis Mehaffey said teachers spent their own time over the summer coaching his child to get him caught up so he could move up to the next grade.
“The programs they have here are more individualized,” Mehaffey said. “Closing down a school that is helping kids, I don’t see it as being a real feasible option.”
Central parent Duska Roberts shared a similar story of teachers rallying around her child to get her on track.
“At a bigger school she could have fallen through the cracks. And that’s what worries me,” Roberts said.
The school board plans to vote on whether to close Central at its next school board meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 8, at the Education Center in Clyde, located beside Haywood Central High School.
The words of so many in the community who have spoken up in recent weeks will no doubt weigh heavily on board members’ minds, no matter how they ultimately vote.
“It takes a village to raise a child. You are looking at a village right here,” said Tammy Laudermilk, grandparent of a child at Central. “You can’t put money on what we have in this school. You can’t put money on love.”