In a career that has spanned more than 13 years so far, I can pick out a few public meetings as being the most heated, rancorous and controversial.
One was for a mill town of a few hundred people that had always been supported by its manufacturers. Those key companies paid the town’s thin budget — even the light bill. In exchange for being in this small town that under North Carolina law could not be annexed by its bordering — and much larger — neighbor, these companies gladly opened their wallets to cover those minor expenses in exchange for never being saddled with a municipal tax bill.
It was a better deal for the companies than the town, and the situation came to a head after the companies closed.
The town was left with only the scant income that trickled in from state allocations. Then it took on debt from a storm cleanup thinking FEMA would ultimately cover the six-figure expense of clearing fallen trees from the town’s roads, but was disappointed to learn the damage was nowhere near the threshold for federal assistance.
The town resorted to the only thing it could: levying its inaugural property tax.
There were questions about whether the town followed requirements set in law for informing its residents of that fateful meeting, but from the bevy of townspeople in attendance, it was clear word got around.
And those townspeople were angry.
There were no torches and pitchforks per se, but there was little doubt that many in the town disagreed with creating the tax, making the meeting a difficult one as attendees interjected.
Afterward, a verbal exchange between a council member and a resident was sufficiently heated — it was punctuated by one waving about his cane — that they each took out charges against the other. Since I was within swinging distance, at least one attorney reached out to me in hopes I might testify in favor of their client, but the charges were eventually dropped.
As far as heated meetings go, that one was No. 2 for me.
What topped that?
A school board meeting.
It wasn’t any old school board meeting. The population was growing older, meaning there were fewer young parents with fewer young children. Enrollment was dropping and the district had a $12 million budget gap to plug. The district wanted to convert a middle school to an elementary and close six other schools in a county of about 90,000 people.
They took the plan on the road to hear from residents before the final vote, and I got tapped to cover one when the person covering education couldn’t attend.
To say it didn’t go well might be an understatement.
People took turns screaming at this school board that wanted to take their school away.
You know, the one that every person in their family attended. The one they hope to see teach their kids or grandkids. The de facto community center where they volunteer and vote.
The idea was so toxic that even one of the school board members applauded as parents took turns sniping the body.
The end result? Within months, the school board scuttled the plan and the superintendent was gone.
Schools are far more than buildings; they are the centers of communities. People are united through those shared experiences of walking through school hallways and supporting their teams. That’s why even rumors of closures or consolidations rile so many.