Charter school competition, funding shortfall forces difficult decision
Chuck Francis, chairman of the Haywood County Schools Board of Education, won’t guarantee that his rural, mountain system will have to close a school to blunt funding shortfalls from the state of North Carolina.
“But the reality is, if we don’t, we’re going to have to go back to the trough,” says Francis. “And we’re going to have some real painful cuts.”
On Tuesday, officials in the Haywood school system were set to consider a proposal to shutter an elementary in the town of Waynesville, which is about 30 miles southwest of Asheville. It’s a move local leaders blame on a confluence of factors, including declining enrollment, the recent opening of a competing charter school and tightening local funding allocations from state leaders.
The closing of Central Elementary, intended to partially bridge a $2.4 million budget shortfall in the Haywood school system, would reassign the school’s student population of roughly 250, many of them from low-income families in the region.
And while local officials acknowledge multiple factors may play into tonight’s decision, Central Elementary’s plight has become a rallying cry among public education advocates in North Carolina this month, with some castigating state lawmakers for handing down funding shortfalls that increasingly strain local school systems.
“How deep do we cut before we say, ‘Why are we sacrificing?’” said Beth Pratt, a Waynesville resident and parent of two at Central Elementary. “Why isn’t the state doing what they should do?’”
Pratt helped to organize a march last month that drew more than 100 locals to protest the school closing. This week, she told Policy Watch that, while she faults the local school board for its speedy track toward closing—many parents, like Pratt, found out about the plan just weeks ago—the blame ultimately falls on the state.
Both Rep. Michele Presnell and Sen. Jim Davis, the Republican lawmakers serving the district, have responded in the media by deflecting criticism of the state’s role, suggesting blame should lie instead with local school leaders. Neither Presnell nor Davis could be reached for comment on this story.
Yet, Haywood County school officials say they’ve spent millions in recent years from the school system’s savings account to blunt state funding shortfalls. By the end of the 2015-2016 school year, Haywood County Schools’ savings fund will have eroded from about $5 million in 2012-2013 to less than $2 million, says Francis.
Additionally, this year, the county school system was forced to pass along about $900,000 of its local funding allocation to Shining Rock Classical Academy, which opened as a K-6 school in August in nearby Lake Junaluska. The charter plans to eventually expand to serve K-12 students.
Shining Rock is a member of a growing U.S. network of charters pushed by the Challenge Foundation, a group funded by a wealthy, Oregon businessman who’s been a national advocate for school choice and other right-wing causes.
This week, Francis told Policy Watch that, while local school officials have long worried Central Elementary would be doomed by finances, last year’s opening of Shining Rock and declining student enrollment dealt a “double-whammy” to the school.
“Our administration was very upfront with us,” says Francis. “They shared with us that we can’t do this forever. There’s going to be a day where we have to say enough is enough.”
While Haywood County school officials were reluctant to predict the results of tonight’s school board meeting, Central Elementary has been staring down closure for multiple years, Francis said.
Since 2008, the elementary’s enrollment has plunged from just under 300 to about 250, at a time when many schools in North Carolina are struggling to keep pace with their enrollment growth.
The recession of 2008 hit hard in blue-collar communities like Waynesville, a town of less than 10,000 in western North Carolina that, like many small municipalities, has been slow to recover. Migrating residents and Shining Rock Classical Academy both led to the decline in the school’s enrollment, officials say.
Meanwhile, Central Elementary serves one of the most struggling populations in the county. More than 20 percent of Waynesville’s residents live below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census data, and federal education officials have designated Central Elementary a Title 1 school, denoting that it serves a heavily low-income population.
Indeed, about 65 percent of the elementary’s students received free or reduced lunch in 2014-2015, according to state data.
Academic performance has been solid, if not spectacular, with the school earning a “C” on the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s A-F school performance grading system last year. But the N.C. Arts Council, another state agency, rates the school an A+ in its assessment of arts-based, education reform, a rarity in schools with such a marginalized population, experts said.
And some point out the school’s academics, considering its low-income population and relatively high teacher turnover rate—about 16 percent, compared to the state rate of 13.8 percent—suggests the school is a model of stability in troubled times for such schools.
Francis says closing the school would be his board’s last choice, but it may be a necessity. School board members were forced to trim from their budget already this year, he said, passing down cuts to local administration, teachers and arts programs.
And while he acknowledged modest increases in state funding for North Carolina public schools approved by legislators in recent years, he pointed out the funding has not kept pace with schools’ needs and inflation.
Last year, the National Education Association reported that while the state is spending more on public education, its spending per pupil actually dropped from about $8,632 to $8,620 from 2013-2014 to 2014-2015, ranking North Carolina at just 46th in the nation in student funding.
Francis rejected any criticism that the local school board failed to budget properly, arguing school leaders crafted budgets that, first and foremost, protected jobs in the school system.
“To say we’ve mismanaged our finances, if the media or any person in the public has sat in with our finance committee in the last few years, they would have seen the discretion,” he said.
Still, Pratt said the news last month that Haywood County Schools would consider axing her school to help fill the hole was stunning.
“When I found out, I just started sobbing,” Pratt says. “It felt like heartbreak. I felt a pretty deep commitment to that school.”
Pratt said one of her children struggled to learn before the assistance of Central Elementary teachers. “The level of commitment and love they have for those children, it just felt so disrespectful to them,” she said.
Leanne Winner, director of governmental relations for the N.C. School Boards Association, says that closing a school is “one of the toughest decisions a school board has to make.”
“It’s always very, very difficult for the school board and the community,” Winner said.
Winner called the problem in Haywood County a “perfect storm,” combining funding and enrollment issues with the opening of a local charter like Shining Rock Classical Academy.
Pratt says resource-stretched school systems like hers should have the ability to deny the opening of charters in such situations.
Meanwhile, some public school supporters warn that the consternation in Haywood County over charters and declining public education investment is not an isolated event.
“This is a canary in the coal mine type of story in the counties that are a little more marginal, that just don’t have the resources,” said John deVille, a public school teacher and education activist in neighboring Macon County.
DeVille added that lawmakers should not blame school board members for the jam. “It’s way more Jones Street than it is local,” he said.
Keith Poston, executive director of the Public School Forum of N.C., said his advocacy group has long feared that lawmakers’ budget constraints and the state’s move to lift the cap on charters in 2011 would hit hardest in places like Haywood County.
“We have to keep an eye on it,” said Poston. “Certainly, when you’ve got a small county with declining enrollment, the impact of choice is very different than it is in a Wake County or a Mecklenburg County.”
Other school systems in North Carolina have faced similar problems, with officials in Madison, Halifax and Stanly counties all facing school closure proposals in recent years, said Winner.
It’s up to state lawmakers to address the dilemma, said Poston. “We cannot, as a state, pass laws or make policy changes that have consequences and say, ‘Well, that’s up to the local area to figure out,’” he said. “It comes back to the state.”
No matter who is to blame, it’s students who will suffer, says Pratt. “And nobody is offering to bail us out.”