School Board scraps Thornton Center renaming in 3-2 vote

Published 4:23 pm Monday, February 13, 2023

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct that the March 2015 version of Policy FFA was added to the IWCS website in 2022, not 2020, and to note that then-School Board candidate Mark Wooster and parent Heidi Swartz discovered the June 2015 policy version in October.

The Isle of Wight County School Board has officially scrapped its plans to name Smithfield High School’s career and technical education building for former Superintendent Jim Thornton.

The board had relied upon a March 2015 policy designated FFA, which stated “no school will be named for a living individual” when announcing in June and voting in September to name the building the “Thornton Career Center” for the recently retired but still living Thornton.

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After several months of controversy over the decision, School Board Attorney Pakapon “Pak” Phinyowattanachip concluded in December that the March 2015 version of the policy was “incorrect” after noting another vote had occurred June 11, 2015, which enacted a different version of the policy adding the words “or school facility” to the prohibition on naming buildings for living people. Then-School Board candidate Mark Wooster and Smithfield High School parent Heidi Swartz had presented The Smithfield Times with records in October noting the June 11, 2015 vote on the alternate policy.

The board voted 3-2 on Feb. 9 to readopt the June 2015 version after putting the policy through the two-month reauthorization process. Immediately following the vote, newly elected board member Jason Maresh – who’d been a frequent critic of Thornton prior to taking office – made a motion to rescind the September renaming vote. Maresh’s motion, which fellow board newcomer Wooster seconded, also passed 3-2. Board Chairman John Collick, who’d opposed the September renaming, backed Maresh and Wooster, while board members Denise Tynes and Michael Cunningham dissented on both votes.

According to an Oct. 20 memorandum from Thornton’s successor, Superintendent Theo Cramer, neither version of Policy FFA had been listed on the school division’s website from early 2016 through mid-2022. On June 9, coinciding with the School Board’s announcement of its renaming plans, division staff had uploaded the March 2015 policy version believing it to be “the operative version at that time,” Cramer’s memo stated.

Tynes, while acknowledging the mistake, asked her fellow board members to “grandfather” the renaming decision.

“We did not know at the time that there was another policy out there; we even reached out to our attorney,” Tynes said. “We did not do anything wrong.”

Thornton, who retired July 1, had overseen a multimillion-dollar countywide renovation of the school division’s career and technical education facilities in 2017. The Smithfield High 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.

Smithfield Foods, in 2017, announced a $3 million contribution to the renovations, but it was Thornton, Tynes contended, who “went out and got the funding from Smithfield.”

Maresh asserted his past criticism of Thornton had no bearing on his decision.

“It is my conviction that this school board cannot pick and choose which policies we adhere to, so for me it’s a matter of principle,” Maresh said.