Smithfield mayors threaten to sue Johnston County school system

pseligson@newsobserver.comJune 2, 2014 

Mayor John Lampe is unhappy with the state of Smithfield schools, and he’s willing to sue to improve them.

The Smithfield mayor made waves two months ago when he called on residents to “raise bloody hell” about their schools and lob rotten tomatoes at school board members. His feelings haven’t changed since then, he said recently.

The school board’s mentality toward Smithfield-Selma High and its feeder schools needs to change, Lampe said, and the only way to do that might be to sue.

“The school board will not voluntarily move from their position,” he said. “From their world view, I’m an idiot, and they’re the ones doing everything right. In my world view, I think they’ve seriously damaged the town of Smithfield and the kids who go to that school.”

Lampe has no time line for filing a civil complaint but said he would sue on the grounds that Smithfield students are not receiving an equal education as required by state law.

The mayor said new high schools have pulled students from Smithfield, leaving mostly low-income youngsters there. At Smithfield-Selma, 63.48 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches. The next-highest percentage – 45.26 – is at North Johnston High. Also, SSS consistently has the county’s lowest graduation rate at 75.1 percent, though the rate has been climbing lately.

Johnston school board chairman Larry Strickland said he had no comment on Lampe’s lawsuit threat.

Strickland said state and federal laws decide where most school dollars go. In April, Superintendent Ed Croom noted that Smithfield-area schools receive an extra $5 million a year. Much of that money is in federal Title I dollars, which go to high-poverty schools.

“We’re wanting to look at ways other than just money,” Strickland said. “We need volunteers, we need mentors in the school, we need community involvement in the school.

“It’s our opinion as a board that SSS is a great school, a good school, and we want to make it greater than it is. But it’s going to take a collaborative effort on the part of everybody.”

Lampe said he doesn’t care how much money the school board spends on Smithfield schools; he wants results and creative solutions.

The mayor said he doesn’t know whether busing to achieve socioeconomic balance is the answer, but he wants to explore that option.

“If they had really and rationally said, ‘We don’t have to bus people, we can run the schools good enough with our expertise and our PhD-educated administrative staff and our extra money, we can make it all work,’ I would have believed that,” Lampe said. “But ... I don’t believe them anymore. I’ve lost confidence in them to do what they need to do to make the changes.”

The extra money in Smithfield schools hires teachers, counselors, teacher assistants and translators. Also, it supports special programs, including the new International Baccalaureate degree at SSS and remediation at West Smithfield and South Smithfield elementary schools.

“A lawsuit would be very unfortunate in that it would consume a lot of resources, financial resources,” Croom said.

“There has been an incredible amount of resources directed toward the Smithfield schools,” the superintendent said. What’s needed now, he said, is a partnership with the community.

Harboring resentment?

Lampe said it appears the school board resents Smithfield because of Neuse Charter School. He pointed to comments school board member Donna White made in April, when a citizens’ group presented a report on SSS to the school board.

As board members responded to the citizens’ group, White referenced people who could have helped SSS nine years ago but didn’t. “Instead of stepping up to the plate, they ran, and they took their children elsewhere,” she said.

Lampe said this was a reference to Neuse Charter School, which opened up nine years ago and is now across Booker Dairy Road from SSS. White declined to comment until Lampe has spoken to her directly. Lampe said what did or did not happen nine years ago was irrelevant; the school board’s obligation, he said, is to today’s Smithfield students.

Strickland said the school board harbored no ill-will toward Smithfield. “When we’ve got a community that’s got some concerns, we make every effort to try to get to the table and listen to those concerns,” he said.

Most of the school system’s money, Strickland said, goes to schools based on rules beyond its control. “There’s a lot of guidelines and a lot of mandates about where money is spent,” he said. “You just can’t spend money where you don’t have the flexibility to spend it.”

“And we’re making every effort to promote SSS,” Strickland added. “We feel like we’ve got a good partner in the county with the Neuse Charter School and we try to work to strengthen that every chance we get.”

On Thursday, Smithfield and Selma leaders met with school officials to talk about SSS. Selma Mayor Cheryl Oliver, who attended the meeting, said everyone, including the school system, is genuinely concerned about SSS. She expects this to be the first of many meetings.

Lampe said he hopes legal action will spur the school board to do more than make empty promises. “I just don’t want to be last place for another 12 years,” he said, referring to the many years SSS has ranked at the bottom among Johnston high schools.

“How about second to last place?” Lampe asked. “They don’t have to get me in the middle. I just don’t want to be worst.”

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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