Nantahala School appears to be 30 miles from Franklin on a map, with several route options to get you there. The shortest trip to Nantahala from Franklin, however, is estimated to take 57 minutes on a two-lane, curvy, remote road through the National Forest.
Because of the isolated location of the Nantahala community, Nantahala School remains one of only three traditional kindergarten through 12 (K-12) grade schools left in the state.
According to Andrew Cox with the North Carolina Department of Instruction, while there are 33 public K-12 schools in the state, only three operate as traditional educational institutions, with the other 30 being alternative or special education schools. Macon County houses two of the three K-12 schools (Nanahala and Highlands), with the other being located on the coast in Hyde County.
Nantahala School houses only about 100 students. The small student population allows for small individualized classes, with some classes recording fewer than five students. With more than an hour commute to the nearest school, it is not geographical feasible to consider consolidating the school with others in the district. Interim Superintendent Dr. Jim Duncan said that it cost about $940,000 a year to operate Nantahala School, which is 100 percent more than any other school in the district.
After state monies are used at Nantahala, between $275,000 to $300,000 are used each year from local monies to keep the school operating.
Because of its unique circumstances, Nantahala's operational costs far exceed the average for the county. The cost of running the school comes to about $9,400 per student, double the $4,700 per student cost to run Franklin High School.
North Carolina funds teachers based on class sizes, and while that works for the majority of districts in the state, it does not come close to covering the need at Nantahala. Depending on grade level, the state awards school districts funding for one teacher for every 18 to 22 students. Based on student population, the state's formula only covers the cost between four and five teachers at Nantahala, which is not possible considering the 13 different grade levels served at the school.
In order to make up the remaining number of teachers needed to operate, the county is left to supplement funds for Nantahala and is forced to cover the salaries for the additional teachers that are necessary for instruction.
With Macon County's current budget crisis, the cost to fund the operations of Nantahala has become more and more pressing. Macon County Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin reached out to Senator Jim Davis to solicit help from the state.
While Highlands School does cost the school system more to operate than other schools in the district, it is not as isolated as Nantahala. Highlands services about 350 students, which amounts to about the same as the elementary schools in the district.
Two years ago, Sen. Davis pushed for legislation that would fund teachers at Nantahala based on grade level, instead of number of students per class. According to Davis, Senate Bill 130, which was introduced on February 25, would allow the state to allot teachers to geographically isolated schools based on grade level as long as the school is located in a district with the average daily membership is less than 1.5 per square mile and if the school is located in a county containing more than 150,000 acres of National Forest, both criteria that Nantahala School meets.
Sen. Davis explained that the legislation he is asking for is already used in Hyde County for the third K-12 school in the state. Ocracoke School is located on the remote island of the Outer Banks and is hours away from the other schools in the county. Some years ago, Sen. Mark Basnight fought to get teachers at Ocracoke funded based on grade level and won. Sen. Davis wants to see his home county receive the same treatment. “I think it is an uphill climb to get it,” said Davis. “We are hopeful but not optimistic, but you never know until you try.”
Despite having support from N.C. Sen. Ronald Rabin (R-12) to sponsor the bill, and Rep. Roger West (R-120) ready to help support the bill in the House, Davis believes the state's lack of funding will be an obstacle too great for the bill to overcome.
“Dr. Duncan and I have been working diligently with Jim and Roger to get this legislation introduced,” said Corbin. “It would do so much for our local budget. The way the state funds now is really not fair when you have a small rural school like Nantahala. Kids don't come in blocks of 22 per class like the state funds teaching positions. That might work in Wake or Durham County ... but not here. Twenty-four kids spans four grades at Nantahala for example ... and the state funds one teacher. Jim and Roger both agree with us and are working hard to get this bill through. The challenge will be getting the votes. It is so important for county commissioners to be connected with our state and congressional leaders.”
With Ocracoke serving more students that Nantahala, Dr. Duncan believes that the only fair thing for the state to do is allow Nantahala to be deemed geographically isolated in order to receive additional state funds.
"It would not be a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, but to a district our size, those funds could help tremendously," said Duncan. "We would be able to use the money being spent at Nantahala and use it for other areas of the budget that are hurting."
On Feb. 26, the bill passed the first reading in the Senate and was sent to committee for further review.