Johnston County

10 hope to sit on school board

With 10 candidates running for eight spots on the November ballot, the Johnston County Board of Education primary is a round of musical chairs.

Four seats are up for grabs on Johnston County’s seven-member school board, with two certain to go to newcomers. Incumbents Peggy Smith and Mike Wooten are defending their seats on the board, while Keith Branch and Donna White are giving up to run for the Johnston County Board of Commissioners and N.C. House, respectively. Another seat could open up if current school chairman Larry Strickland is successful in his bid for the General Assembly. On March 15, voters may cast ballots for up to four of the 10 hopefuls.

While three sitting school board members are looking for elected jobs elsewhere, eight others appearing on the March 15 primary ballot are running for the first time.

In addition to Smith and Wooten, the ballot will feature Dale Bender of Clayton, Teresa Grant of the Cleveland community, Summer Hamrick of Smithfield, Jeffrey Jennings of Clayton, Ronald Johnson of Clayton, Crystal Kimpson Roberts of Smithfield, Todd Sutton of Kenly and Chip Swartz of Clayton. Johnston County’s Board of Elections called for the March 15 primary late last year when the number of candidates was more than twice the number open seats

Mike Wooten

Wooten, a banker and two-term school board member, said launching a career and technical academy is one of the school system’s greatest needs.

“The new Johnston County Career and Technical Academy will accept its first 50 students for the next school year,” he said. “This is going to be the first major step in facilitating technical education.”

Wooten said he wants small class sizes and supports a future where Johnston students continue to attend community schools.

“Serving students where they live is an important part of education,” he said. “It generates community support and involvement. I support students attending school where the lines are drawn.”

Wooten said a magnet program could have a place in Johnston County, particularly at Smithfield-Selma High School.

Chip Swartz

Swartz, who is business manager for a Raleigh law firm, pointed to Johnston County’s continued growth as the push that got him into the race. While the county’s student population grows at a rate of a school per year, Swartz said that doesn’t always mean new buildings.

“Managing that growth is going to continue to be a heavy issue,” Swartz said, adding that he considers raising teacher supplements a way to make sure that the number of teachers keeps up with enrollment growth. “Johnston County is in the top 20 in the state in teacher supplemented, which sounds pretty good until you realize we’re surrounded by counties in the top five. We’re losing our best and brightest teachers to neighboring counties.”

Swartz said he also hoped to bring added transparency to the board, noting that the usual descriptions of closed-door activity are too vague.

“I say when you emerge from closed-door sessions, give some rationale about what you did there,” Swartz said. “I think the board sort of uses it as taking the Fifth. I understand why they do it, but I would say there was major discussion on this or a major disagreement over that. I would take it right up to that line. I think there’s a middle ground they’re not coming to.”

Todd Sutton

Sutton said having a son with autism pushed him to be active in the school system, first in the North Johnston High School’s Panther Club and then the Johnston County Education Foundation board of directors. Now he’s running for school board.

“If we’re not advocates for our kids, no one else is going to be,” Sutton said. “I want to be an advocate for all children.”

Sutton said he would focus on raising salary supplements for Johnston County teachers. He blamed low pay for the exodus of Johnston teachers for jobs in surrounding counties.

“Last year, 52 percent of the teachers we lost we lost to Wake County’s higher teacher supplement,” Sutton said. “I was encouraged that Dr. [Ed] Croom mentioned the supplements as something the county needed to look at here in the very beginning of drafting a budget for next year.”

Johnston’s reputation as a quality school system is one of the forces driving the county’s population growth, Sutton said, with new families looking to locate near good schools. The current community-based assignment system is something Sutton said he wants to protect as the district continues to grow.

On security, Sutton said schools need to do more to keep children safe. Specifically, he said schools should be able to lock down with the touch of a button, instead of the current door-by-door system of locking up. He said he understood security upgrades would cost money, but that greater safety was worth investing in.

Peggy Smith

Two-term incumbent Smith, who has served as a teacher and principal in Johnston County, is the only educator in the 10-candidate field. She said she’s voted three times for higher teacher supplements for county teachers and is prepared to do so again.

“I would like to raise supplements to the level where teachers would not be tempted to leave our county for higher pay,” Smith said. “ I would like to see a master’s degree supplement for Johnston County teachers, who no longer get a master’s supplement from the state.”

Smith said the district will have to collaborate with county commissioners to address pay, as well as the county’s growing student population.

“I’ll continue to partner with the county commissioners to build and maintain our facilities,” Smith said. “We are a rapidly growing district, and children deserve quality teachers and quality facilities.”

Smith pointed out that Johnston avoided teacher layoffs during the recession, and she pledged job security to those currently serving in the county.

Crystal Roberts

Roberts thinks her experience in public relations positions her to be a liaison between the public and the board of education. She called education a passion of hers and said she entered the race to further her advocacy in the schools.

“My interest is in providing a voice for the entire community,” Roberts said. “For our students, teachers and parents, the Board of Education must do its due diligence in making student achievement its top priority.”

Student achievement, Roberts said, begins with paying quality teachers and keeping them in the school system.

“We have to support our teachers and provide them with what they need to teach our students,” she said. “On the Board of Education, that means building and maintaining relationships with lawmakers. I understand what Johnston County needs in order to have an excellent education.”

Roberts said she would focus on hearing the concerns and learning about the experiences of students in the classroom and bringing that back to the board. And like Swartz, she called for the school board to act with transparency.

Ronald Johnson

Johnson is the youngest candidate in the field. The 32-year-old Smithfield police detective is former a school resource officer, and from his time in the schools, Johnson says he has seen firsthand the needs of students and teachers.

“I’ve watched a lot of good teachers leave Johnston County for better-paying jobs in Wake County,” Johnson said. “It’s disparaging to see great teachers leave because they’re not being paid enough. Great teachers need to be paid more and feel more supported in the classroom.”

Johnson is a product of the Smithfield-Selma schools and helped found after-school programs as a school resource officer. One program he wants to promote is emergency-services training in the high schools, where students could graduate already certified as a firefighter or emergency medical technician.

“If you get people involved and giving back to their community, you break the cycle of being dependent on government,” Johnson said. “How many firefighters do you know committing crimes?”

Jeff Jennings

With two daughters now in college, Jennings said the timing felt right for a run at the school board. He echoed the calls of other candidates for higher pay supplements.

It’s something the current school board has discussed but not done, Jennings said.

“It’s something everyone seems to talk about, but no one seems to be talking about moving forward with a solution,” he said. “I’m also hearing what’s on parents minds about growth and infrastructure. A lot of parents feel like they’re not being heard, for whatever reason. It’s very important to me to rely on parents and community leaders to get feedback. Parents are wondering why we can’t have books in classrooms, why teachers are having to ask for supplies. My philosophy is if we can zero in on these simple things and begin to fix those, we can work up to the larger issues.”

Jennings has spent his career working in the state Agriculture Department. He said Johnston’s agricultural program is vital to the area and is something he would make a priority.

“I’m very supportive of agriculture programs,” Jennings said. “Especially in more rural communities, a lot of good things come from these programs. Those in the agricultural community can take comfort in knowing there’s someone in the race who is listening to them.”

Summer Hamrick

Hamrick owns an insurance company and said she would lean on her business experience when on the board, particularly in drafting the annual budget. She said she would make it a priority to spend time in every school assigned to her at least once a month.

“My goal is to build strong relationships between the schools and the board of education,” Hamrick said. “I plan to volunteer after school so I know what’s going on in the classroom. I’ll take that information back to the board and say, this money is going to support this and why that’s important. That way I’ll know what kids are actually using and need in the classroom, preventing waste of taxpayers’ money.”

Hamrick said she hopes to be a person parents come to with concerns and suggestions.

“I want to be a board member parents feel they can talk to,” she said. “I’ll do my best to explain, research and work with parents on what’s going on in the schools.”

Teresa Grant

Teresa Grant said Johnston schools compare well against those in Wake. Her grandson, she said, was behind three grade levels in reading in Wake schools but quickly made up the difference when the family moved to Johnston.

“I want to do my part to help continue that,” Grant said. “It’s important to help kids find their passion for learning. Not every child has the desire to go to college, and we need alternatives for those kids to develop their passions. Vocational education is huge.”

Grant said she wants a move away from Common Core math, which she sometimes has trouble making sense of despite having taken advanced calculus in college and working as a chemist in the state Agricultural Department.

“We need to bring back math that’s a little more sensible,” she said. “Students need a good foundation in math and English if they’re ever to excel in anything afterward.”

Grant said Johnston also needs to address its teacher exodus, pointing wishfully to the charter school model of negotiated salary as something traditional public schools could benefit from.

Dale Bender

Bender is a retired school bus driver who hopes to be a voice on the board of education for special-needs children. She founded Hopes-N-Dreams, an advocacy group for special-needs children, when she found services were lacking in the schools.

“One of my sons is special needs ,and we weren’t getting the proper resources,” Bender said. “We had to fight to get resources for him. Someone needs to be a voice for these children and parents. These families need to know someone is there who knows what they need.”

Bender said current school leaders can’t say teacher pay is a priority when they gave a $500,000 boost to the pension of former superintendent Ed Croom.

“We’re losing good teachers to surrounding counties,” Bender said. “There are a lot of questions coming up with this about; what else is in the school budget we don’t know about? Anyone who works for the state knows the last four years go towards your retirement. They knew they were increasing his retirement. That’s common sense. Either they weren’t advised right, or it didn’t register.”

Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdjackson

Dale Bender

Age: 60.

Occupation: retired school bus driver.

Education: high school graduate with some college coursework.

Political resume: first-time candidate.

Family: married with two sons and three grandsons.

Website: Dale Bender for Johnston County Board of Education Facebook page.

Teresa Grant

Age: 56.

Occupation: chemistry section supervisor for the N.C. Department of Agriculture.

Education: bachelor’s degrees in biology and chemistry from University of Alabama-Birmingham, master’s in Chemistry from Huntington College.

Political resume: first-time candidate.

Family: one daughter, three grandchildren.

Website: Teresa Grant for Johnston County Board of Education Facebook page.

Summer Hamrick

Age: 35.

Occupation: insurance agency owner.

Education: High school graduate with some college coursework.

Political resume: first-time candidate.

Family: married 18 years, two daughters in Johnston County schools.

Website: Summer Hamrick for Board of Education Facebook page.

Jeffrey Jennings

Age: 50.

Occupation: director of marketing for the N.C. Department of Agriculture.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from North Carolina State University.

Political resume: first-time candidate.

Family: married 27 years, two daughters in college.


Ronald Johnson

Age: 32.

Occupation: detective with the Smithfield Police Department.

Education: bachelor’s in criminal justice from Mt. Olive College, master’s in business from N.C. University.

Political resume: first-time candidate.

Family: wife, Jami Johnson.

Website: Ronald Johnson for Johnston County Board of Education Facebook page.

Crystal Roberts

Age: 52.

Occupation: public relations consultant.

Education: bachelor’s from Hampton University.

Political resume: first-time candidate.

Family: three sons.


Peggy Smith

Age: 68.

Occupation: coordinator, Master of School Administration program at Campbell University.

Education: bachelor’s in vocational home economics from UNC-Greensboro, master’s and doctorate in middle grades education from N.C. State University.

Political resume: Johnston County Board of education 2008-present.

Family: married 50 years, two children and six grandchildren.

Website: Peggy Smith for Board of Education Facebook page.

Todd Sutton

Age: 42.

Occupation: pharmaceutical representative.

Education: High school graduate, attended Barton College and East Carolina University but did not graduate.

Political resume: first-time candidate.

Family: married 20 years, 17-year-old son, 11-year-old daughter.


Chip Swartz

Age: 48.

Occupation: business manager for a Raleigh law firm.

Education: bachelor’s degree in political science from East Carolina University.

Political resume: first-time candidate.

Family: married with two daughters.


Mike Wooten

Age: 53.

Occupation: banker.

Education: bachelor’s in economics from Virginia Military Institute.

Political resume: twice elected to the Johnston County Board of Education.

Family: married, one son in college, one daughter in middle school.

Website: none.