School Board votes 3-1 to rename SHS career building ‘Thornton’ center

Published 1:32 pm Friday, September 9, 2022

After surprising retired Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton in June by announcing plans to rename Smithfield High School’s career and technical education building the “Thornton Career Center,” Isle of Wight County’s School Board made the change official with a 3-1 Sept. 8 vote.

Thornton, who retired July 1, had overseen a multimillion-dollar countywide renovation of the school system’s career and technical education facilities in 2017. The detached Smithfield High School facility became home to Isle of Wight County Schools’ new welding, nursing, engineering, manufacturing and culinary arts programs – including a student-run restaurant named “Turner & 10” for the school’s location at Route 10 and Turner Drive.

The project also included the addition of a greenhouse and horticulture program at Windsor High School, as well as a working salon run by cosmetology students, a building trades workshop and a working farm behind Windsor Elementary for agriculture students.

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In 2016 and prior, IWCS would send students interested in taking career and technical education courses to Suffolk’s Pruden Center, though few Isle of Wight students took advantage of the opportunity.

“I am so honored to be a citizen of Isle of Wight County when people come here to visit what we have to offer our students,” said School Board Chairwoman Denise Tynes.

Board member John Collick cast the dissenting vote. Board member Renee Dial was absent.

While Collick said he had spoken highly of Thornton during his time as superintendent, “for me to want to memorialize any person permanently on public infrastructure,” they would have to have the “universal respect of the community,” Collick said.

County residents have taken issue with a $91,000 payout Thornton received in June for his unused leave, which exceeded the maximum allowed per School Board policy for other retiring employees but was consistent with payments to previous superintendents.

According to Isle of Wight County Schools spokeswoman Lynn Briggs, Thornton’s immediate predecessor, Dr. Katrise Perera, received a payout of just over $67,000 upon departing in 2015. In 2011, Perera’s predecessor, Dr. Michael McPherson, received just under $9,500 for his unused annual leave and another $81,000 “miscellaneous” payout for a gross total of just over $90,000.

A major part of my decision was based on my interactions with Dr Thornton concerning his retirement payout,” Collick said, clarifying his meeting remarks via a Sept. 10 email to The Smithfield Times.

Collick, who’d voted with his fellow board members to approve a separation agreement with Thornton that specified the retired superintendent was to receive a “gross payment” calculated at the “full per diem rate of reimbursement,” said he’d been under the impression at the time that “per diem” referred to federal per diem rates, not Thornton’s daily rate of pay.

Thornton had also come under fire from a group of county residents who called for the removal of certain books from school libraries and apps from school-issued iPads, citing sexually explicit information and allegedly “divisive” tenets of Critical Race Theory, an academic discipline that argues laws and institutions have perpetuated inequalities among minorities. Collick, though he ran on a platform of opposition to Isle of Wight’s equity initiatives when campaigning for his Carrsville-area seat last year, said the ongoing equity debate didn’t factor into his decision to oppose renaming Smithfield High’s CTE center.

I don’t believe he was completely honest with me concerning his payout,” Collick said. “If he had been, I most likely would have supported renaming the CTE building after him.”

In addition to voting against the renaming, Collick remained seated when the board stood to pose for a group photo with Thornton, his wife, Mary, and a rendering of the renamed building. Collick, during comments by board members at the conclusion of the meeting, said he didn’t feel it was “appropriate” for him to be in the photo, but he pledged to be at the dedication ceremony for the renamed building once it occurs.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify Board member John Collick’s stated reason for opposing the renaming.