A number of candidates running for the Johnston County Board of Education want the current school board to wait until after the November general elections before hiring a new superintendent.
Johnston County Schools has been without a permanent superintendent since Dr. Ross Renfrow suddenly retired in August 2019. Last week, the school board voted unanimously to hire the NC School Board Association to conduct a nationwide search for their next leader. Under the current plan, the new superintendent is expected to be hired and in place this summer.
Four of the seven seats on the school board are up for election this Fall. A number of the 16 candidates running for the four seats want the hiring process delayed so that voters, they say, have a real choice in the selection at the ballot box. What if the four newly-elected members don’t like the superintendent hired during the Summer? Could the new hire be ousted next year? Some prefer allowing current interim superintendent Dr. Ben Williams – a popular selection – to remain in place until after the elections, then hire the new leader.
Opponents argue the school system needs stability and a permanent leader now. And putting off the hiring only further delays the process that newly elected board members shouldn’t have to deal with. It would also be unfair to students, they contend.
We reached out to all 16 school board candidates – three of whom are current school board members running for reelection – and asked, should the hiring of the new superintendent be delayed until the new school board is seated after the November elections, or should the superintendent be hired this summer. Here are their responses:
“There are many reasons the Board of Education (BOE) should be looking to hire an INTERIM superintendent for our school system. Think about this, (an) upcoming election that could change the majority of the Board of Education (BOE) whose members had no voice in that choice; a recent BOE history of acrimony, charges of corruption, mismanagement and sexual harassment; a steady decline in school performance that has Johnston County Schools ranked in the bottom 20% to 25% of systems in the state – a complete reversal of 10-12 years ago that ranked our system in the top 25% in the state; a financial and budget disaster, a lack of trust between County Commissioners and the Board of Education pertaining to budget and financial competency; the resignation of interim superintendent Dr. Causby, one of the best superintendents in North Carolina, and his disclosure of the reasons for that resignation; a lack of direction and resulting chaos that has permeated our school system and has resulted in extremely low staff morale; (and they) will have to extend at least a four year contract to (the new) superintendent through the search process. This hire must be the perfect person or taxpayers will be “soaked” again to buyout a contract to try to ‘turn the system around’.”
“Having served on the BOE before and having gone through two superintendent searches, I can say, without reservation, that you will get applicants, but would you really hire them? We will be extremely fortunate to have one come through that you would hire. This was my experience when our system was gaining in performance scores. Any superintendent worth their salt will most likely be in a good situation and will have done their homework on Johnston County and stay away. Would you want this job?”
“There is no question that Johnston County is suffering the worst of times and we all want to make the best decisions possible that will lead us out of this mess. I believe that we have options available to us that would quickly stabilize and begin improving our system. I have grave reservations that this search will produce acceptable results. We can all hope and pray that the perfect candidate, looking for a challenge, will apply!”
“I believe the current Board has lost the confidence of the community through their decisions in budgeting and personnel, most importantly the selection of Superintendents. The idea that they will be signing on the highest paid school administrator for what I have been told would be four to five year contract may not be a wise decision. A more prudent path maybe to negotiate a one-year contract with the current interim Superintendent. A new board can be seated and the onus and responsibility of such an important decision can be placed upon them, with the residents of Johnston County having a voice in the process through the ballot box.”
Teresa Grant (Incumbent)
“If we wait until after the elections to hire a new superintendent, that will leave us operating with an interim superintendent for another school year. I think we owe it to our students and staff to have the right leader in place when the 2020-2021 school year begins. We welcome stakeholder feedback as we begin this national search to find the best superintendent for Johnston County Public Schools.”
“As a candidate, and as a parent with two children in Johnston County Public Schools, I am opposed to the current school board selecting the next superintendent. Under normal circumstances, I would say the board should proceed with the hiring process, even in an election year with four seats being contested. But given the poor judgment this board has demonstrated – and given some of their past superintendent selections – I think it is wrong to let them choose the next superintendent. Let what could be a new majority make that decision.”
“We won’t get a new superintendent in until after the next fiscal year budget is done, so that’s not even a factor to consider.”
“Board members could argue that it would be difficult to bring in a new superintendent midyear in 2020-21. If we need to have an interim superintendent lead us through June 2021, I’d be OK with that. I want the right permanent leader for JCPS, and if we have to wait awhile to get her or him, it certainly wouldn’t be the worst thing that’s happened to JCPS in recent years.”
“Board members could also argue that they need a superintendent ASAP to do curriculum planning. But this is a great opportunity to engage more teachers to be actively involved in curriculum planning. Among the system’s many problems is that people in Central Office who haven’t been teaching for many years are almost completely responsible for developing curriculum. The process should involve our teachers a lot more than it does now. I have heard this critique directly from teachers.”
“The next superintendent absolutely must come from outside Johnston County Public Schools. We need someone with a fresh perspective who can look at how our system is run and how things could be done differently. Putting insiders in charge obviously hasn’t worked.”
“While I understand the sentiment behind the idea of allowing the newly elected board hire Johnston County’s new superintendent, I would not advise this course of action. A strong superintendent is vital to the future success of the school system. If we wait until the new board is elected and seated it would amount to almost one full year with no permanent leadership in place.”
“I would however, advise the current board to look outside the county and state for our next superintendent. Some of the public’s eroding trust in our school system is related to the perception that the school system’s leadership continues to be a revolving door of Johnston County insiders. We need a new superintendent who comes to the table with no prior biases, no political allegiances and no personal connections to current staff. Selecting a superintendent from outside the county would be an important step in restoring public confidence in our administrative team.”
Mike Wooten (Incumbent)
“I have had numerous contacts and feedback from parents, school employees and taxpayers that we need to move forward with the search for a new Superintendent and for the process to be a national search. With that being said the board has hired the NCSBA to help facilitate our search and most importantly the search will include multiple avenues to give feedback about what the stakeholders of Johnston County would like to see in a new Superintendent through surveys, public comment, or even contacting the board members individually. We welcome any and all feedback during this process. We as a board are welcoming any and all feedback during this process as we search.”
“Waiting until November would not be fair to the staff, students and local communities, which they need the best Superintendent available to lead this district now and in the future. Waiting will only delay the process an additional year, which will deprive this district of long term stable leadership we need. Searching and finding a Superintendent now will create calmness, trust and focus across the entire system, which is what JCPS needs.”
“I hope that a new superintendent is selected sooner rather than later. Elections are many months away and well into our next school year. I hope this national search finds a financially proven, experienced individual of character, not currently involved in our school system, who understands that STUDENTS COME FIRST. Someone with good communication skills who realizes the importance of transparency and teamwork. I worry that if we wait, good teachers who were sadly informed recently about the possibility of reductions in force may currently be searching for stability and employment elsewhere. We need our teachers, coaches, librarians, cafeteria staff, bus drivers, counselors, front office staff, janitors … all of the individuals who directly impact students. This is the last group that should have received news like that. I do believe some mistakes have been made by our current school board, but I also believe they all stepped into this role because they care. We need trust and stability NOW. I don’t think we can wait until after elections.”
Ava Atkinson Gaines
“My opinion with all that has gone on, would be to wait until say November. That’s my take on it. Get some new ideas and a little change here and there. You never know who will end up on the school board. Its time for a change. Why not wait until November. I think Ben Williams will do a good job until then.”
“I think the superintendent selection needs to wait. We spent $600,000 on Renfrow. We spent and hired Dr. Causby for $250,000. With Ed Croom, the prior superintendent we paid him $400,000 to walk out the door. At this point we are spending too much money on superintendents. There is a huge void in the budget and we’re not doing what we should with taxpayers money. I think we should wait until the end of the year but the school board needs a leader now. We need a new direction. Right now we have failed students. We should wait to have a new direction in the board of education and elect someone who can take us in a different direction.”
“I think the board needs to wait until the four seats that are up are filled. However my reasons for waiting are not only for some new board members to help hire a new superintendent, but to let the current situation with the school board calm down.”
“The next superintendent must be a ‘homerun’ hire after the turmoil of the past three months. The students, teachers, staff and taxpayers of Johnston County deserve the best superintendent that can be found in a nationwide search. I’m afraid with all the negativity associated with the school board and school system the best candidates for the superintendent job will not apply. That leaves us choosing from the middle of the road group which is not what we need at this time.”
“Ben Williams is capable of leading the school system until the time is right for a new hire. I think some things have to be cleaned up before we move forward. We need to be patient and careful until the next man is hired.”
“With possible impending teacher layoffs as early as March, we do not have the luxury of sitting on this issue until a permanent Superintendent is hired. The interim superintendent, the commissioners and current board need to put their differences aside and work together to avoid an economic collapse of our already bruised education system. The longer this instability persists, the greater the chance some of best teachers will turn to Wake County Schools.”
Ronald Johnson (incumbent)
“I feel we should conduct the Superintendent search and choose a viable candidate to lead the district. Johnston County Public Schools does not need to wait until 2021. My motive is to find someone who can establish a productive organizational culture and improve our school system. If the school board waits, it could take a year or possibly longer to hire a superintendent. This does not take into account the time it will take for the new superintendent to transition and learn about our district. Our students and staff do not have the luxury of waiting therefore I support proceeding with the process.”
“It is my opinion that the current board should begin the process of selecting the new superintendent. From the actions of the board at the last School Board meeting, this decision has been made. For the sake of our students, teachers and other staff members, the school system needs to have the new superintendent on board by the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.”
“The BOE has shared the process it has implemented to fill the vacant Superintendent position for JCPS. Though I am not in agreement with many things or the manner in which things have been and continue to be handled by this board, I am comfortable with the stated process for filling this position. The open dialogue with the stakeholders provides feedback from all involved-provided it is given serious consideration and attention by the BOE.”
“I realize some feel this decision should be delayed until the November election. It is my opinion that we should not wait any longer than necessary to put a permanent person in the position to lead our school system, as I believe this is necessary to begin the process of moving forward. In addition, waiting would move the selection into the second semester of the next school year without permanent leadership.”
“While I support Dr. Williams one hundred percent as the interim and am confident that he will lead in a positive and effective manner, the system needs that stability of a permanent person at this time. I have spoken to some current BOE members, addressing my concern with the current timeline as to why the process was not already started. I was assured the timeline is appropriate and the selection will be made with ample time for the person selected to have a beginning date over the summer.”
“Obviously, public trust has never been lower for a BOE than now, however, I believe the BOE will make a positive decision for our school system-especially with the public scrutiny and demand for accountability. At some point we have to trust the people we elected to do what is right and hold them accountable to do so and use the power of voting to assure that happens.”
“I believe that it would be the best idea (to wait) in the interest of students, teachers and parents. As we have seen in the news, the board has a number of issues. These issues have negatively impacted the students, staff and larger community.”
“Instead of our school board being a shining example of excellence, we have become an embarrassment . Waiting for new members, new blood to help make the decision would be the most sensible solution.”
School board candidate Yvonne Marlowe did not respond to our emails and phone calls requesting a comment.