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SMITHFIELD — Among the 16 men and women running for school board in Johnston County, Terry Tippett is closest to the classroom.
He retired just two months ago after teaching exceptional children in the county’s schools.
“I felt I could offer something that nobody else can offer,” Tippett said of his decision to run. “You’ve got former teachers on the board, but you don’t have anybody who is coming directly from the classroom this year and understands the things we’re facing this year in the school system.”
What he saw before retiring troubled him, Tippett said. “The morale is not good,” he said. “You see a lot of young teachers who question the profession, and that’s not a good a thing to see.”
A budget crisis that threatened jobs no doubt contributed to low morale, but Tippett sees a broader problem too. “When you look back on the county, our school system isn’t in the same position as it was 10 or 12 years ago,” he said. “We’ve seen a decline in performance, a decline in accountability.”
To begin building the schools back up, Tippett would start with how the board crafts its annual budget. “When the superintendent proposes a budget, there have to be checks and balances,” he said. “Obviously, the process didn’t work this time.”
When Jim Causby came to Johnston last September as interim superintendent, he inherited an $18.8 million budget shortfall that he quickly trimmed by $10 million. That left an $8.8 million gap that county commissioners recently agreed to help close.
But after that $10 million cut, Tippett noticed no changes in the classroom, leaving him to wonder where the schools had planned to spend that $10 million. “We’re focused on the $8.8 million, but just as important to me is the $10 million they’ve already cut and I can’t really tell a difference,” he said. “If we can cut $10 million, did we need that $10 million to begin with?”
School budgets, Tippett added, should not reward central office administrators at the expense of classroom teachers. “I think we put ourselves in a bind when we gave over-the-top raises to a handful of folks in the county office” while giving teachers just a 1-percent boost in their supplement, he said.
In addition to righting the schools’ budget ship, Tippett wants to beef up mental health services for children. “We have psychologists in the school system, but the psychologists are pretty much doing (exceptional children’s) testing,” he said. “We need to look at psychologists just for the purpose of being available for counseling.”
Tippett would also like to see a school resource officer in every school. “If you look at the wish list for personnel, you look at psychologists, you look at SROs, you look at more nurses,” he said.
Finally, Tippett would change how Johnston County approaches high school. North Carolina requires 22 credits for graduation, Johnston requires 28, but the high school schedules allows students to earn as many as 32.
“I would like to have a program in place in our county — vocationally based — where you don’t get credit for it, no tests, no anything, but that’s a block of your day that’s vocationally oriented,” Tippett said. “Let’s work with our kids who we’re losing and give them an incentive to be in school that day.”
Years ago, North Carolina offered different academic tracks for high school students, Tippett said. “You had a vocational track, and the state did away with that,” he said. “But you still have that group of kids that are being left behind.”
“Right now, high school is a dead-end for a lot of kids,” Tippett added. “You don’t have lots of stuff in the public schools for kids who aren’t motivated.”
It doesn’t have to be that way, Tippett said. “We we can do something in the vocational area for that group of kids who don’t fit into these other programs,” he said.
Like other challengers to this year’s incumbents, Tippett thinks the school board dropped the ball at Clayton High School, where a grade-fixing scandal led to the temporary removal of the principal. “I don’t know how you could have handled that any worse,” he said.
For starters, the schools assigned the wrong person to conduct the investigation, Tippett said. “Your county athletic director should have been the one heading that up,” he said. “I have a problem when you have a county athletic director and he’s not the one who heads an athletic investigation.”
The timing of the principal’s removal was poor too, Tippett said. “The superintendent has the right to move any principal anywhere,” he said. “However, you wouldn’t do that the week school started.”
It didn’t help that a central office was having its own troubles, including the hiring of teachers without credentials, Tippett said. “The perception is not good, because if you can’t get your house in order, you’re going to come and investigate ours?” he said. “I think that’s where a lot of the animosity came from people in the Clayton area. It’s the pot calling the kettle black, so to speak.”
Tippett thinks school board members need to spend more time in the county’s schools. Board members routinely visit schools, “but I don’t think they do that for input,” he said. “Personally, I would like to visit schools for an hour, an hour and a half at a time and talk to teachers, talk to custodians,” he said.
Tippett thinks Johnston’s next superintendent should do the same. The school system’s latest improvement plan, he said, came from the top with what seemed little input from people in the schools.
“I think a lot of that was handed down to the staff, but I’m not sure a lot of staff bought into that, because there was no input,” Tippett said.
“I think you need an administrator who understands that different parts of the county may not need the same thing,” he added. “What we need to get South Johnston going may not be what we need to get Corinth Holders going.”
The latest improvement plan doesn’t do that, Tippett said. “We came out with this cure-all thing, and there is no cure-all thing,” he said.
The next superintendent should also be someone who is personable and understands budgets, Tippett said. He or she should be experienced too.
“We’re at the point in our county now, with the state we’re in, I think you need somebody with experience to come in,” Tippett said.
Johnston County schools aren’t what they used to be, Tippett said. “But because we have quality personnel in our schools, we can get back to where we need to be,” he said.
About Terry Tippett
Born Sept. 2, 1963, Terry Tippett is a 1981 graduate of Smithfield-Selma High School and a 1985 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in recreation therapy.
Tippett spent 14 years in recreation administration at Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh. He then joined the Johnston County school system as teacher of exceptional children at South Campus Community School, the county’s alternative school.
Throughout his career in Johnston, Tippett taught exceptional children. He retired last December.
Tippett and his wife, Peggy, have two adult children, Lindsay Tippett Lang, 26, and Dawson Tippett, 20.