Smithfield-Selma High used to have school pride, parents and alumni say.
But pride is hard to muster on a campus that feels increasingly shunned by the Johnston County school system, supporters told county school leaders during a meeting earlier this month.
“The conversation I hear in this community is that we’re just being neglected,” said Smithfield businessman and former school board chairman Kay Carroll, who had three children graduate from SSS.
“That’s why we’re here tonight – to hear what you guys have to say,” said Patrick Jacobs, the school system’s operations chief.
The April 6 meeting was supposed to be about the SSS field house, which the school system padlocked after a parent showed the Smithfield Town Council photos of mold, exposed wiring and other health and safety hazards.
But it became much more, including a 45-minute discussion about the career and technical academy the school system might open on the SSS campus. That bothered some of the roughly 50 people in attendance.
“We spent the last hour or so talking about everything but the reason we’re here,” said Mark Lee, a SSS graduate and parent of a Spartan baseball player. “I want to make a proposal that we have another meeting soon.”
“Cleaning and paint don’t fix the plumbing” in the field house, said one voice in the audience. “We should have the meeting there,” said another, referring to the field house.
“We’re here because we’re concerned,” said Lee, the parent who appeared before the Smithfield Town Council. “We hope that we can get the support from you guys to address that – not three years from now, not 10 years from now. We want something done right now.”
Carroll and others in the audience said the school system has enough money to repair the SSS field house or build a new one.
“We just heard during the political season there’s been $40 million in saving that this school board had, and $20 million had to be returned to the county commissioners” because of the recession, Carroll said. “That leaves $20 million out there, and you have an issue on this campus that has not been touched since the school was built.”
“If that money is sitting there and we have an issue like this ... you need to solve the problem,” Carroll said. “You can look around this county at every other school and I will tell you that there is nothing like that left on any campus.”
The audience applauded Carroll’s comments, and other speakers echoed his remarks.
David Moore is a 1995 SSS graduate who played football at Wake Forest University. “This school is predominately a minority school, and the problem needs to be fixed,” he said to Jacobs and other school system administrators. “People stand in front of me and call themselves a leader. Take the lead and fix the problem.”
Others said the Smithfield-Selma community had lost trust in the school system.
“What you got to do is gain trust,” said Lloyd Barnes, a SSS alumnus.
The SSS community has supported past school-bond issues and gotten little in return, Barnes said. The schools tell “people to hold on and wait and things are going to get better, and if you vote ‘yes’ to this bond, you’re going to get your equal share,” Barnes said, “And then you don’t see the results.”
Barnes said SSS athletes get discouraged when they see the facilities at other Johnston County high schools. “When they go to these other schools in the county, it doesn’t make the kids feel too good,” he said. “It doesn’t make the parents feel too well either.”
School board members Mike Wooten and Keith Branch attended the meeting. Wooten, a 1981 SSS graduate, said he came to the meeting because he too was concerned about conditions at the school.
“The field house was in bad shape when I was here in 1981,” he said. “ I’m proud of this school ... and I want to get something done too.
“It’s a process, but it’s going to be a priority of mine to get the problem fixed.”
Smithfield Mayor Andy Moore also attended the meeting. “The field house can be done,” he said. “Don’t tell me it cannot be done. With a budget the size of yours, you can find the money to do it.”
Lenny Branch, a SSS alumnus, is the father of a sophomore and junior at the school. He called for equal treatment of SSS.
“This school deserves it,” he said. “This community deserves it.”
Parents who support SSS, including its athletics, get discouraged when they visit the campus, Branch said. “When the parents have to go to a bathroom that’s rundown and torn up and they have to hold their head down in shame, that hurts me,” he said. “We used to have school pride at SSS.”
That pride used to be so great that tryouts for SSS teams always drew more would-be players than roster spots available, Branch said. “We don’t have that anymore. The kids are not coming out there.
“Give them something to be proud of and they will come.”
Like Branch, Jay Moore, parent of a junior at SSS, the school just wants to be treated fairly. “Just give us what they’ve got,” he said of other Johnston high schools. “It doesn’t have to be better.”
Branch asked Superintendent Ross Renfrow and his administration to “dig down and support this school and this community and find the money and make this thing happen.”
And parents criticized school leaders for laying the blame for the SSS field house on principal Stephen Baker.
“I don’t appreciate somebody pointing the finger at me or anybody else,” said Lee, the baseball parent. “Don’t throw them under the bus. Let’s work together as a community, as a school board so we can be the pinnacle of Johnston County.”
Jacobs, the operations officer, said the school system could demolish the field house and erect a new one for roughly $160,000. It could repair the existing one for about $130,000.
Also, SSS teams have access to the Smithfield Recreation and Aquatics Center, which is next door to the school. But parents said the SRAC is becoming to busy for students to use.
Renfrow said the school system and school board would discuss the field house in budget talks.
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett