Growth worries Johnston parents

Reassignment is school board issue

Staff WriterMarch 3, 2006 

Beth Sadler didn't pay attention to county politics until her children were moved from East Clayton to Polenta Elementary.

The four meetings on reassignment she attended this year were her first glimpse into how the Johnston schools are run.

She was not impressed.

"I'm not angry about being moved, but I want it to be done fairly," she said. "I was disgusted with the process."

Sadler wanted to be better informed and hear more discussion of alternatives. As school board elections approach, she said she and her neighbors will be keeping an eye out for school board candidates with new ideas for handling growth.

With 10 candidates and parents such as Sadler energized by a reassignment battle, the school board race will be one to watch in Johnston County this year.

The candidates are competing for three open seats. The top six in the May primary will be on the November ballot.

It will be the first primary in a decade for the school board, and the first since the district moved to nonpartisan elections in 1998.

Despite the nonpartisan ballot, party politics is at play.

The current board, which is largely Democratic, backed off a reassignment plan that would have shipped hundreds of Clayton students west to schools in the Cleveland community over the protests of parents.

The plan was aimed at filling two new schools and easing overcrowding at others.

Some Republicans are seeing opportunity among the hundreds of parents who were upset by the proposed move and the potential for future reassignment battles as rapid enrollment growth brings new schools.

"What people are seeing about the reassignment is that it could be their neighborhood next," said Joseph Avery, chairman of the Johnston Republican Party. "I think that will play an important part with the voters."

Six Republicans, three Democrats and one independent are running for the board.

Republican newcomers Carol Brannock and Brian Hale, along with incumbent Larry Strickland, are touting magnet and optional year-round schools as alternatives to mandatory reassignment.

"I would like to offer families in Johnston County an option of where they want to send their child," said Hale, of Clayton. "Right now, there aren't any real options other than go to a school in your district or go to a private school."

Brannock, a retired teacher, said different magnet schools could focus on technology, art or foreign languages. She went to the public hearings on reassignment and saw room for improvement in the way it was handled.

"Had I been a parent, ... I don't think I would have enjoyed the way it was done," Brannock said. "They are not out there taking the pulse of the communities."

Sylvia Herring of Benson said she supports community schools and would consider year-round and magnet schools.

Strickland stands to benefit most from reassignment in the upcoming election. Along with board member Donna White, who is not up for re-election, Strickland firmly opposed the proposal to move the Clayton students -- earning him avid support among the parents who were involved.

Democratic incumbent Dorothy Johnson made a last-minute stand against moving the Clayton students -- and one that might have persuaded school officials to leave the Clayton students in place.

She couldn't be reached for comment but in the past has touted the county's accountability and teacher retention programs.

Other candidates are eager to make sure all schools -- including those in eastern towns that aren't growing as quickly as communities to the west -- get fair treatment when it comes to teachers and bond money for school construction.

Timothy Rainey of Selma and Butler Hall of Four Oaks -- also Republicans -- want to make sure school funds are distributed equally.

"A child, wherever he is in the system, should have the same opportunities and facilities," said Hall, a former North Johnston High School principal.

Democrats Jimmy Edwards and Linda Massengill are more focused on controlling spending and improving discipline, including keeping guns, drugs and gangs off school campuses.

"You shouldn't cover it up and pretend they're not here," Massengill said. "It's just going to keep snowballing."

Jeff Ferguson, who did not list a political party, is focused on keeping good teachers in all county schools.

Ferguson is a former teacher who made headlines after a science experiment that made students sick. He lives outside Clayton and said he has seen his neighbors move rather than face a possible reassignment to Smithfield-Selma High School, where he used to work.

"The solution [to reassignment] is to make all the schools good schools," he said.

Staff writer Marti Maguire can be reached at 829-4841 or

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