Thornton to retire as IWCS superintendent

Published 11:52 am Friday, March 11, 2022

Dr. Jim Thornton will leave his role as superintendent of Isle of Wight County Schools on June 30 – one year earlier than specified in his contract.

In 2021, the School Board had renewed Thornton’s contract through the end of the 2022-23 school year. Following a closed session at the start of its March 10 meeting, the board voted to amend Thornton’s contract to specify the earlier date.

The board had initially voted to approve a “proposed amendment” to Thornton’s contract “as discussed in closed session.” School Board Attorney Pakapon “Pak” Phinyowattanachip then advised that to comply with Virginia’s open records laws, the board would need to state publicly what had changed. The board then took a new vote, with Vice Chairman Michael Cunningham reading into the record that the board had “agreed to honor” Thornton’s “request to be released from his contract, effective June 30, 2022, in order to retire.”

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Thornton made no statement during the meeting as to why he’d suddenly decided to retire early, but provided a written statement to The Smithfield Times the following morning stating he’d become “saddened that staff and children have been directly affected by politicians that have used k-12 education to further their political agendas.”

Read Thornton’s full letter here.

Since May, a vocal group of county residents has accused Thornton, board members and other IWCS employees of bringing Critical Race Theory into the school system via its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. CRT, as it’s often abbreviated, argues American laws and institutions have perpetuated inequalities among minority groups.

He and other school officials have repeatedly denied that CRT is being taught in Isle of Wight, but critics pointed to Smithfield High School’s “Read Woke” challenge, which encourages students to voluntarily read social justice-themed books, as evidence of CRT’s perceived influence. In January, Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed an executive order his first day in office banning the teaching of “divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory,” in Virginia’s public schools.

“Public education is the great equalizer,” Thornton writes. “This is especially true for economically disadvantaged students. It is troubling to me that some individuals have decided that we can only teach students one perspective.”

Thornton’s earlier-than-expected departure comes on the heels of former School Board Chairwoman Jackie Carr’s decision to withdraw her candidacy for reelection last year after lamenting that “politics has crept its way into our school.”

“I know you have toiled with this for a few weeks,” School Board Chairwoman Denise Tynes told Thornton after Cunningham read the amended contract into the record.

“Dr. Thornton, I’d like to thank you for everything you’ve done for the Isle of Wight County Schools for the last seven years,” Cunningham added. “You have done an outstanding job.”

“I’m not going to say goodbye right now, Dr. Thornton, but it is a pleasure working with you,” said School Board member John Collick, who’d campaigned for his seat on a platform of opposition to the perceived influence of CRT in Isle of Wight. Collick then thanked Thornton for his responsiveness in replying to the newly-elected board member’s phone calls and emails.

Thornton began his tenure as Isle of Wight’s superintendent in 2015 after previously serving in the same role for Mecklenburg County’s and Cumberland County’s public schools. His public education career spans a total of 33 years and includes time as a math teacher and coach.

During his time with Isle of Wight, he oversaw a multimillion-dollar renovation of the school system’s career and technical education facilities in 2017, led Isle of Wight through the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic as one of only two Hampton Roads school systems to open its doors in the fall of 2020, and most recently oversaw the design and funding of a replacement Hardy Elementary School.