School Board used ‘incorrect version’ of facility naming policy, attorney says

Published 4:13 pm Monday, December 12, 2022

Isle of Wight County School Board Attorney Pakapon “Pak” Phinyowattanachip now says the board relied on an “incorrect version” of one of its policies when voting in September to rename Smithfield High School’s career and technical education building.

A March 2015 version of School Board Policy FFA, which states “no school will be named for a living individual,” had been slated for reauthorization at the board’s Dec. 8 meeting. According to School Board records, however, the board had revoted on June 11, 2015, on a different Policy FFA version that added the words “or school facility” to the prohibition.

The School Board, on Dec. 8, voted unanimously to scrap the March 2015 version and instead restart the two-month process for reauthorizing the June 2015 version, pushing the vote to February.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The delay comes amid controversy over the board’s announcement in June, and formal September vote, to rename Smithfield High’s CTE building as the “Thornton Career Center,” named for retired – but still living – Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton.

According to an Oct. 20 memorandum from Thornton’s successor, Superintendent Dr. Theo Cramer, there had been no version of Policy FFA listed on the school division’s website from early 2016 through June 9 of this year. The Smithfield Times obtained the document in November via a Freedom of Information Act request. On June 9, coinciding with the School Board’s initial announcement of plans for renaming the CTE building for Thornton, division staff uploaded the March 2015 version of Policy FFA to the division’s website, believing the March 2015 version to be “the operative version at that time,” Cramer’s memo states.

School division spokeswoman Lynn Briggs told the School Board on Dec. 8 that Phinyowattanachip had contacted her prior to the June 9 School Board meeting and asked whether there was a policy in place for naming school facilities for people, when she discovered the policy that should have been listed under Section F – Facilities Development – was missing. She then discovered the March 2015 version listed in the archived meeting agendas for that year, but said the June 2015 version never came up in her search.

“It’s very rare to have policies come up and be approved twice in the matter of months. … None of my actions were done with any intent other than to comply with policy,” Briggs said.

The June 2015 version, which prohibits both schools and school facilities from being named for living people, is now scheduled to go before the board for a first reading in January and a second reading and vote in February.

Newly elected School Board member Jason Maresh noted the board has the authority to waive its own policies, and proceed with the renaming plans, but said he would object to that course of action.

“How can we hold the superintendent and all of his staff accountable to policy if we don’t follow our own policy?” Maresh said. “In my opinion, there’s good reasons why a school division would refrain from naming a building after an individual that was not deceased. I don’t know Mr. Thornton that well, but god forbid he went out and did something and it was bad … that reflects back on the school.”

Maresh, who was elected to the board’s District 4 seat in November, had been one of Thornton’s most vocal critics during the retired superintendent’s final year in the job – contending equity and inclusion efforts that began under Thornton were “divisive.”

Maresh, in the Dec. 8 meeting, called for rescinding the renaming vote in February once the corrected policy is in place.

Thornton, who retired July 1, oversaw a multimillion-dollar countywide renovation of the school division’s CTE facilities in 2017. The detached SHS 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.