For the three Cherokee County Board of Education seats up for election this year, there are only three people – two incumbents and one newcomer – running to fill those seats in the Republican primary Tuesday, March 3.
“It’s hard to get more people to run,” county GOP Chairman Bennie Jo McKinnon said.
As the school district faces consolidation due to financial challenges, she said it’s going to take strong leaders to make those decisions.
For the school board election, James Ellis and incumbent Jeff Tatham are running for the two seats in District 1, while Arnold Mathews is seeking re-election for the District 2 seat.
School board District 1 includes Andrews, Marble and Topton. District 2 includes Bellview, Brasstown, Hanging Dog, Grape Creek, Peachtree, Murphy and part of Unaka.
James ‘Jaybird’ Ellis
Ellis, better known as “Jaybird” to those who grew up with him in Andrews, is the owner of The Compound gym. He is a 1991 graduate of Andrews High School, plus attended both Maryville (Tenn.) College and Tri-County Community College for one year each before joining the U.S. Navy in 1993. He returned to his hometown when he retired from the Navy in 2013.
He has four kids – two at Andrews High School, two more at Andrews Middle School. He has a close relationship with the principals at both schools, and has volunteered at the high school in both physical education and the weight room.
Ellis said he loves small schools like the ones in Andrews, Hiwassee Dam and Murphy.
“I’m a product of Andrews High School,” he said. “I want to protect Andrews, but I want to protect it in a very open-minded way.”
Ellis said he is concerned about all the costs of closing a school, including 16-year-old students driving a longer distance, the financial drain the farther distance can have on families and what will happen to the communities.
“If you want to have one high school in the county, you could roll up the streets of Andrews,” he said.
However, Ellis said he would consider all ideas and do what is ultimately best for the county.
He does believe the county has too many middle schools, adding that students in each middle school district will eventually feed into the same high school.
Tatham works in information technology for Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. The 1995 graduate of Andrews High School and graduate of Western serves as chairman of the Cherokee County Board of Education.
He has three sons – one at Andrews High School, two at Andrews Middle School. He has volunteered at the schools, chaperoning field trips and helping proctor exams. He has also helped coach sports teams.
Tatham believes Cherokee County has a good school system, with students who consistently earn high grades. He wants to be able to provide supplements to our teachers.
“We’ve got good people,” he said.
Tatham believes the county is already several decades behind in consolidating school campuses, although he does catch himself getting emotional about the ongoing situation.
He said there’s a misconception – one he even held before he got elected – that larger schools mean larger class sizes. However, there is actually a state limit on class sizes, and having fewer schools will level things out across the county.
Tatham said he can support just one high school, but they have to consider everything involved.
As a school board member, he believes he must do what’s best for the kids, but he’s also concerned about what’s best for the towns. Other places where consolidation of high schools has occurred were in one-town communities.
“In our case, we’ve got two towns,” Tatham said. “I think Murphy would be fine, but I don’t think Andrews would be.”
His biggest concern is the logistical challenges of having just one high school in the county, including what it means for athletic teams traveling farther for away games.
“We’re in a real tough situation,” Tatham said.
He added that there are serious facility issues at Murphy High School, the roof at Andrews Middle School leaks and the septic system needs to be replaced at Martins Creek Elementary/Middle School.
“We’re just constantly fighting fires,” Tatham said. “We’re making do, we’re surviving … we’re just a catastrophe or two away from not being able to survive.”
He thinks one elementary school would be too much, but added that multiple kindergarten through eighth grade schools is a possible solution. He personally is interested in consolidating the Murphy school district, much like the Andrews district was consolidated when Marble closed.
Tatham said if funding wasn’t issue, he would support keeping all the schools as is.
He would not be surprised if the board agrees on a long-range consolidation plan within the year.
“It’s not going to go away,” he said.
Mathews is a former principal and assistant principal in Cherokee County Schools, who in recent years returned to the classroom.
He spent his earlier years teaching in Haywood County, before serving as assistant principal at Hiwassee Dam and Murphy elementary schools, then as principal at Martins Creek Elementary/Middle School, Murphy Elementary and, briefly, The Oaks Academy. He retired from North Carolina in 2015 and today teaches Spanish at Union County High School in Blairsville, Ga.
Mathews has three children who graduated from Cherokee County Schools. His wife, Patricia, is principal at Peachtree Elementary School.
He thinks his experience gives him an interesting perspective for his role as school board member – he is familiar with all the schools, plus works in district that has already consolidated schools. He wants to do what’s best for all children.
“It’s hard to weigh these things,” Mathews said.
He tries to be open-
minded and listens to everyone, but sometimes people have misinformation or don’t fully understand the issue.
He sees the benefits of Union County having a fine arts center, a good STEM program and one stadium to maintain, then weighs it against the benefits smaller community schools provide.
“Change is so so difficult for anybody,” Mathews said, reassuring any plan would take place over a period of time.
“It’s a difficult decision to have to make, and it’s very emotional.”
He thinks local schools do prepare students for the most part, but he would like to make sure our students are able to be competitive with all other students.