No. 1: Haywood County Schools, a year of ups and downs
By all accounts, Haywood County Schools had a year to remember in 2016.
In January, school leaders unveiled their plan for dealing with the impact of a reduced student population and state funding decisions that prompted a $2.4 million budget reduction plan. The plan included a proposal to close Central Elementary School, one of the oldest schools in the system. There was room to transfer students to nearby Hazelwood and Junaluska schools and savings of $400,000 to $500,000 were expected from closing the school that had operated since 1954.
It was the school closure issue that riled the public most. Several packed public- hearings illustrated the deep affection that students and teachers, past and present, had for Central.
Ultimately, the state budget decisions and the opening of the first public charter school in the county, Shining Rock Classical Academy — which opened with about the same number of students that could be accommodated at Central — reconfigured the education landscape in the county.
“There were a lot of ups and downs,” said Anne Garrett, Haywood County Superintendent of Schools, “but we really worked together as a team and scrutinized everything we were doing financially. Evidently something paid off.”
That’s because, despite the rocky start, the school system earned the distinction of becoming one of the top performing school districts in the state.
“Last year, we reached 15th in the state, and this year we were 11th, which put us in top 10 percent,” explained Associate Superintendent Bill Nolte. “We’ve been in the top 10 percent in many individual rankings — ACT, Work Keys, third-grade math — but this is the first year we were in the top 10 percent comprehensively in the 22 measures of a school system used in the state.”
Nolte said when school leaders made budget presentations in the community, they told people the $2.4 million in cuts was a product of losing almost 400 students in two years. He said if the school could make the cuts and the student population stabilized, then the budget would stabilize.
“Looking back, that has been accomplished,” he said. “We don’t have extra money, but we have adjusted the budget to the new size of the district.”
“We knew how much we could get with the funding formula, and knew we could no longer rely on fund balance,” Garrett said. “We’re living with what the county commissioners and the state give us.”
This year, even though Haywood County schools didn’t lose students, Shining Rock gained students. That meant about $450,000 of the sent to Haywood County Schools had to be transferred to the charter school in October.
The largest cut to absorb was nearly 4.5 teaching positions, a $276,000 hit. Rather than lay off teachers and disrupt classrooms 60 days into the school year, the school board voted to take the funds from the school’s fund balance.
The transfer of students and staff from Central Elementary to other nearby elementary schools has been almost seamless, Nolte and Garrett agreed.
“Junaluska and Hazelwood aren’t at capacity if you look at the numbers, but if you look at the offerings, especially at Hazelwood, it is tight,” Garrett said, adding that if there is growth, it may become necessary to have music and art teachers share a classroom, for instance.
“They get along so well,” Garrett said. “If I didn’t know, I couldn’t tell which teacher and students came from Central.”
The parent-teacher organizations have worked hard to blend, Garrett said, and there have been no complaints from parents since school opened under the new arrangement.
After the closure of Central Elementary school, a lawsuit against the Haywood County school system was filed in May by Waynesville attorney and parent Mark Melrose.
Melrose sued the board of education over the closure process and filed a preliminary injunction that was dismissed in July.
Melrose claimed the decision to close Central violated the state’s open meetings law, and the closure study required by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction failed to consider the welfare of the children as is required.
Based on comments made in a school board's recording of a public work session, Melrose also contends that the board did not follow their own policies when setting the agenda for a January meeting when the decision to study Central Elementary for a possible closure was made.
“I had offered to settle with them if they admitted that they violated the Open Meeting Laws, but they wanted to continue,” Melrose said during a recent interview. “In my opinion, they are just incurring legal expenses now. ... I’m disappointed — I think it's a case that could be settled but they refuse to concede.”
As of now the lawsuit is proceeding to determine the merit of the other issues.
The lawsuit is still in the discovery phase, where the school board’s attorney Pat Smathers and Melrose request documents and take depositions, which is an oral statement of a witness under oath.
Depositions will begin on Jan. 12, when Melrose, Superintendent Anne Garrett and Chairman Chuck Francis will each be giving a statement.
Smathers said the next step in moving forward with the case will depend on how the legal process pans out. He said he expects more pre-trial motions followed by mediation, and if that doesn’t work, possibly a trial.
“It all depends on how the discovery goes, it depends how future motions go, and it depends on how the court rules on things,” Smathers said.
Melrose recognizes that there is likely no chance that Central Elementary School could be reopened, but is still pushing the lawsuit forward as a means to hold the school board accountable.
“I am going to see it through to the end — whether the judge agrees or disagrees with me,” Melrose said. “I think parents deserve to know if [the board] handled it correctly, and the only way to do that is to see it through.”
In addition to keeping current on teaching standards, technology, weather fronts, and complicated state and federal record-keeping, school administrators also follow sociological trends.
Nolte saw the shrinking student numbers several years back from tracking in-migration and birth rates. He now foresees a fairly stable growth rate.
“It looks like we’re going up 30-40 a year,” Nolte said. “We don’t have new large manufacturing plant opening to bring in a lot of people here in a short amount of time. We can’t predict enrollment, but indictors look pretty stable.”
Nolte said the philosophy of the school administrative staff had always been to use the available resources to provide the best comprehensive education possible for students, both academically and through extra curricular activities.
“We’re constantly looking for, and talking about ways to get even better,” Garrett said.
Nolte stressed that the Haywood County school system has focused on innovation for decades, citing the opening of Central Haywood High School, Haywood Early College and working with the community college so students can get advanced credits.
“Three have been invited to a mind research institute in California because a nonprofit company working on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) never saw a school system with conceptual math for six years,” Nolte said. “Our responsibility is to get better every day.”
The Haywood school system was in the “average” range for years. The rise from 40th in the state about 13 years ago to 11th is one that was carefully planned for Haywood. School leaders, administrators and educators studied the Jim Collins book “Good to Great,” and a goal was set for the school system to be in the top 10 percent of every measurement available within the rating structure.
To learn how to make that happen, school administrators sought out school systems that were at the very top of a certain function, visited them a learned how they were able to be successful.
School supplement committee
A challenge for the future will be recruiting and retaining teachers, Garrett and Nolte agreed.
When principals interview prospective teachers, they have found the school system is the one being interviewed as candidates ask about things such as signing bonuses, supplemental pay or utility discounts.
After 24 teachers relocated this past summer — many of them veteran teachers — a committee was formed this past fall that was charged with discussing ways to recruit and retain teachers in Haywood County.
The committee, made up of teachers, school administrators, county commissioners and business owners, met a total of three times before determining that the school's supplement was a major issue to address.
"The committee felt that the teachers were going to Buncombe County for the higher supplement," said Jason Heinz, human resources director for Haywood County Schools. "Basically, they said the supplement seemed to be the deciding factor. Our teachers are great, our students are great, but what it boils down to is you’ve got to pay the bills."
An increased teacher supplement will be a topic for discussion during the school board's January work session scheduled for Jan. 5. Any action taken to increase the supplement could be made at the next board meeting, which is scheduled for Jan. 9.
Another challenge will be filling administrative positions. The school system will begin a leadership academy early in the year, but the bigger challenge is the lack of economic incentive to accept new responsibilities.
"Ten out of 15 of our principals are being paid on teacher salaries because they make more money than an administrator," Garrett said.
With a new Superintendent of Public Instruction, and a new U.S. Secretary of Education, both with nontraditional educational views, there is much uncertainty in the public education realm.
Nolte said whatever happens, all school systems will be in the same situation, and Haywood will strive to learn the new rules, follow them and succeed by whatever measures are handed down.
“Our job is to do better than anyone else,” Nolte said. “Things may be different. There may be different rules. As soon as we know the rules, we will jump all over them.”