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As a candidate, Wooten isn’t shy about school issues

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SMITHFIELD — As he seeks reelection, Johnston school board member Mike Wooten isn’t dodging the issues that buffeted the board in 2019.

For instance, while he regrets the grade-fixing scandal at Clayton High School and its fallout, Wooten isn’t apologizing for the lengthy investigation it spawned. “It is unfortunate that all parties had to endure this situation,” he said in an email response to questions from the Johnstonian News. “However, once it was presented to the board and evidence was provided, an investigation was needed.”

Wooten said he was glad the investigation found that the 13 students involved did nothing wrong, a conclusion that allowed interim superintendent Jim Causby to return principal Bennett Jones to Clayton High on a probationary status. “It was important that a complete investigation be finished so the superintendent could make the right decision,” he said. “We all wish the grievance process would have been quicker, but know that the right decisions were made, and we had to make sure policy was followed.”

Wooten said he could not go into detail about the unexpected retirement of former superintendent Ross Renfrow, but he defended the money the board paid to Renfrow as he stepped away. “What I can tell you is that he was under contract for several more years, and it took a much (smaller) amount than what was due him under his contract,” he said.

As for the pension-spiking bill the board recently received from the N.C. Retirement System, Wooten said that’s a bill many school boards get. “The state retirement system has a formula that states if you have an increase in your salary and retire (before) paying into the system for that increase, then the deficit in question is charged to the system he or she retired in,” Wooten said, adding that the board had appealed the pension bills for Renfrow and former superintendent Ed Croom.

Wooten blamed the school system’s budget shortfall on a host of factors, including safety and security measures for the schools, expensive building repairs and the cost of new curriculums. “One of the larger shortfalls is unfunded mandates from Raleigh,” he said, referring specifically to edicts on class size and exceptional children’s programs that don’t come with additional dollars.

“All these items (cause) the depletion of fund balance when proper funding is not available to fund a system with accelerated growth,” he said.

Wooten said he was running for reelection, in part, because he wanted to complete some unfinished business. “Most important is the search for a new superintendent to lead the system now and into the future,” he said.

Wooten has a number of qualities he would like to see in Johnston’s next superintendent. Among other things, that person should be someone who has the ability to build relationships and community trust, he said. Also, the next school leader should have budgeting skills, plus a record of academic growth, and he or she should be an advocate of career and technical education.

“However, I am more interested in what Johnston County stakeholders want in a new superintendent, which I hope will be obtained through surveys by whoever we hire to do a national search for our new leader,” Wooten said.

Raising student achievement is another piece of unfinished business, Wooten said. And before finishing his tenure as a school board member, he would like to see school and county leaders agree on a school-funding model that more reliably pays for school needs, Wooten said.

“I want to continue to provide guidance in our budget process and utilize my relationship with the county commissioners to make sure they have the proper information in regards to our needs,” he added.

Another item on his to-do list is increasing career and technical education offerings, apprenticeships and partnerships with Johnston Community College. “These trades are important to our students and communities,” Wooten said.

Finally, Wooten said he wants to help create election districts for school board members so that every attendance area has a seat on the board. “The county is big enough to make this happen,” he said.

About Mike Wooten

Born Oct. 23, 1962, in Roanoke, Va., Wooten, 57, is a graduate of Smithfield-Selma High School and Virginia Military Institute, where he earned a degree in economics. A longtime banker in Johnston County, he now works for United Community Bank in Smithfield.

His wife, Paula, is a graduate of North Johnston High School and a longtime teacher and coach at Princeton High School. His father, the late Carroll Wooten, was on the first administrative staff at Smithfield-Selma High, which opened in 1969.

Wooten and his wife have a son, Michael, a graduate of Princeton High School and Campbell University. Their daughter, Meredith, is a junior at Princeton High.

Wooten served on the Smithfield Town Council for four years, and he was a 20-year volunteer with the Smithfield Fire Department. He was also a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army.