Signs of disagreement
Signs that began appearing this week near several of the county’s high schools bear a message that quickly became a point of contention between the two men running for county mayor in the August election.
The sign on U.S. Highway 19E in Roan Mountain near Cloudland High School reads: “Leon Humphrey proposes to close Cloudland High School. Save our Schools! Please come out to the polls on Aug. 7 and vote Kent Williams.” The sign also bears a website address at the bottom which links to a news story posted on May 1 by Bristol television station WCYB.
Similar signs have been posted near Unaka High School and Hampton High School. In each of those instances, the signs’ messages are the same, but each bears the name of the school it is near.
Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey said he first learned of the signs on Monday afternoon when he received several calls from residents in Roan Mountain.
“The folks that called me were extremely upset because they thought I was going to close their school,” Humphrey said. “On Tuesday I spent just about every hour of my time in the office talking to people who were upset over the idea that I was going to close their schools.”
Humphrey said the message being spread by the signs is not true.
“The problem is these signs sent a message to each of these communities that the mayor is proposing to close their school,” he said. “The county mayor does not close or consolidate schools. The school board, by statute, has the authority to take those actions.
“Until (a plan) hits my desk that has been approved by the school board and the County Commission, I have no position on consolidation.”
Humphrey said the WCYB story referenced on the signs was a profile interview the station did for the county’s Republican primary election in May. “After that candidate interview, Tim Cable asked me a question asking my opinion on school consolidation,” Humphrey said. “At no point in time did I ever take a position on the issue.”
The news item on the WCYB website quotes Humphrey as saying: “I’ll leave that to the school board. That’s their field of expertise. I just know that from a county-wide standpoint we’re going to have to do something different than what we have in the past. We cannot continue to support the number of schools that we have and all the overhead with it that’s part of our financial problem.”
While Humphrey said he is concerned about the financial issues facing the county and the school system, he said he also feels the issue of school consolidation should not be a consideration in the election because the issue of school consolidation is not currently being debated.
“It has nothing to do with this mayoral election,” he said. “That has not been discussed in two years.”
State Rep. Kent Williams, Humphrey’s opponent in the upcoming August General Election, feels differently.
“The mayor says it’s not an issue but I think it is,” Williams said, saying that Humphrey had voiced support of school consolidation and closing schools. “I’ve heard the mayor denied saying it, but he did. I’ve heard him say it.
“When a man says ‘we’ve got to do something different,’ that ‘something different’ means closing some schools.”
Williams confirmed that the signs talking about closing schools are part of his political campaign, but says he did not purchase the signs.
“Those were paid for by citizens and some school teachers and other concerned people,” Williams said. “It was basically a ‘pass the hat’ kind of thing to raise money to buy these signs. People in the communities were very concerned about the schools being closed.
“People approached me and asked me if I would approve them and use them and I did. I approved it and I helped put them up.”
Williams said he has no official stance on the school consolidation issue at this time. “I need to talk more to the school board, but I know having just one high school is not the answer,” he said, adding that he has discussed the idea with the Tennessee Education Association. “(The TEA) said this has never worked well in the rural communities.”
The county would have a number of logistic and financial issues to consider before consolidating schools, Williams said. “What do you do with the old schools? Where do we get the money?” Williams said, adding “I am definitely opposed to the idea of just one high school.”
Humphrey described the signs as “misleading” and said he believes the signs are an attempt to sway votes.
“Kent Williams is a veteran office holder and he knows better,” Humphrey said. “I really think Mr. Williams went too far by this attempt to mislead the public.
“As elected officials we are supposed to do everything we can to calm people, not infuriate them by planting seeds of untruth.”