This is not how Ross Renfrow wanted to begin his tenure as superintendent of Johnston County school’s.
His first day on the job, March 1, should have been his day to stand alone in the spotlight. Instead, while Renfrow was reading to students across the county, Johnstonians were fuming at retired superintendent Ed Croom for fattening his pension at their expense.
That same day, a parent, frustrated by school system inaction, showed the Smithfield Town Council photos of mold, exposed wiring and other health hazards in the field house at Smithfield-Selma High School. That was bad enough, but then Renfrow’s chief lieutenant, Patrick Jacobs, essentially blamed the shameful condition of the field house on SSS principal Stephen Baker, saying Baker, when given the chance, didn’t didn’t make field-house repairs a priority.
Jacobs might have been right, but throwing the principal under the bus suggested a central office administration that was looking to shirk responsibility and accountability. That wasn’t lost on Renfrow, who quickly issued a statement saying “our … intention is not to assign blame … but to examine all sides” of how the field house came to be in such disrepair. “Today, we stand united as one team, reflective and as committed as ever to continuous improvement.”
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The bad PR for the new administration didn’t end there. Not long into Dr. Renfrow’s tenure, a veterans’ group complained that the schools would not allow it to distribute miniature U.S. flags to students. The school system said it had no qualms with the veterans’ group or with giving flags to students; it’s opposition was to disrupting valuable classroom time. The school was on the right side of that debate, but yet again, Renfrow found himself issuing a statement after bad press.
To his credit, Renfrow is going into Johnston’s schools asking parents, teachers, students and other stakeholders to help him chart a course for the schools during his administration. But even that effort has drawn criticism. A grandparent at the Smithfield-Selma “kitchen table conversation” complained that the meeting wasn’t open to the public. “This is nice, don’t get me wrong … but the community needs to be involved, James Gathers said. “The public’s not here. This is all administration.”
Renfrow’s response was that he had invited various groups to the discussion and that he wasn’t turning anyone away. But that’s not the same as saying the schools sent an invitation home with every child or made robo calls to parents, like it does when it closes schools because of snow or ice.
Perhaps Dr. Renfrow thinks that by inviting PTAs and advisory councils he’s guaranteeing an audience vested in the schools. But the select invitation list creates the impression that the schools don’t want to hear from their critics.
The encouraging news is that Renfrow is a product of Johnston County schools, as are his children. Put another way, we can’t think of anyone more invested in making Johnston schools the best they can be. That should encourage all parents and taxpayers going forward. But first, the superintendent needs to avoid distractions, including any he creates for himself.