11/30/06 — Smith says facilities should be priority

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Smith says facilities should be priority

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 30, 2006 1:46 PM

More than nine years after starting his terms on the Wayne County Board of Education, Lehman Smith said he will head back to private life with the realization that some of the work he had hoped to accomplish has yet to be completed.

He will leave a facilities plan unfinalized and unfunded -- just as it was when he came on the board, he said.

"I was naive enough when I got on there that I thought I would get the problems resolved, but changing times, changing children, it will never be resolved," he said. "It's like lining up the tires on a car. You do it, it looks good and then directly you have got to do it again."

From the time he joined the board nine and a half years ago, Smith said facilities have been his main priority. Academics, while also important, were trusted to the professionals tasked with keeping the schools' programs on track, he added.

"We haven't looked at the curriculum (since) we have got a staff and schools of trained people, and we the board don't need to set the curriculum," Smith explained.

At times, Smith said it has been discouraging and disappointing to witness an impasse between the school board and county commission when it comes to discussing the school system's construction needs.

Over the last year, the school board has had to again table its facilities plan pending findings of Evergreen Solutions, a consulting firm hired by the commission to assess the needs of the school system. In recent months, a series of community meetings was held at each of the six high schools in the county to further evaluate the priorities.

And even though the process seems to be moving, Smith said it is still nowhere near the finish line.

"I don't think it's close to the end (of the process)," he said. "For six years, we have sent the building plan up there, basically the same building plan, changing it as the needs have changed. The cost of doing that building plan is up over $40 million, so it has cost the taxpayers of Wayne County $40 million because of the county commissioners."

Smith said it has been frustrating to watch negotiations stall and no progress made, while some schools are bursting at the seams and others are in dire need of renovation. He said it is disappointing to realize a plan will not be implemented before he leaves, but what would be worse is to have it delayed even longer.

"I'm not sure (the commission is) ready to do anything yet. I'm not sure we're not just skipping ropes for nothing," he said.

Smith said he just hopes the school board will not become more discouraged and will continue to work to replace the schools that need replacing and add on to those that need more space.

Such concern is nothing new, Smith said. In fact, he says it's what he has been hearing for 40 years. Brick and mortar might not seem like important topics, but put another way, he said, "Some may say money doesn't buy education, but sitting in a building is a whole lot better than sitting under an oak tree."

Reflecting on the past decade, Smith said he had not originally set out to be a long-term board member when he was brought in to fill the term of Carl Maples.

"I had made my first little dabble in politics," he said, recalling that some of his supporters had encouraged him to consider being a part of the school board. He accepted and received the appointment by county commissioners.

At the time, he said, the board was going through a transition. There was a rift between board members and then-superintendent Ray Brayboy, who resigned shortly after Smith came on board.

One of the most tenuous times Smith remembers was the year he served as board chairman.

"We were finishing up our first building program and cashed in a little over $1 million doing what we promised the public," he said. "We had such a time trying to get the last million out of local funds to get the gym built at Rosewood and Aycock high schools."

Rosewood was one of three high schools in the state that did not have a gym, he explained. And though Aycock had a gymatorium, the school board believed the 3-A school needed a proper gymnasium.

The commission came through, he said, and funded both projects.

When he lost his bid for re-election earlier this month to opponent Dave Thomas, he said he was prepared.

"It's no big deal because whether I'm there or Dave is, or other board members, the system is there and the people that are going to be there are people that are concerned with children," he said. "Those that are not concerned with children are not going to do it."

Besides, says the 69-year-old retired farmer, another term would put him at age 73.

"Nine years is about all I can take," he joked.

Despite that, he said he takes with him many fond memories and moments of pride at having served on the Board of Education.

"We have also probably got the best board in the state, with a cross section of agriculture, teachers, engineers represented," he said.

And while the seven members are elected to represent different districts in the county, Smith said when it all boiled down, everybody looked at the county as a whole.

"It was always a matter of where the needs were," he said.

Among the highlights of his tenure, Smith said, were attending graduations and watching students walk across the stage or being in the audience at the various school activities.

"Watching a little girl who was in the top of her class and she was in the jazz band, watching her perform one day and watching her show a hog the next ... just how versatile young people are in this county," he said.

Being a board member is not without its depressing moments, though, among them having to take a child out of school and putting him into an alternate school.

"A lot of times you can trace it back to the parents," he said. "Our parents were looking to push us along to try to do better than they were doing. Now you're looking at parents that don't seem that concerned ... . You have got a whole lot more that don't care."

All things considered, though, Smith said he believes he did the best job he could.

"I think a lot of good things happened while I was up there, not solely because of me but because of the cooperation of the staff and the board members," he said. "It's not a big paying job, it's not a job that people should have an ego over. It's just a job of service to the community."

Will he consider running again in the future?

"Not in this lifetime," he said before letting out a hearty laugh. But he if asked, he wouldn't hesitate to help the school board or the school system.

"I will support the learning. I'm still for the same things I was before and I still believe we'll see the dog pound before we see a new school," he said.

It was more than a civic duty that prompted him to join the school board, just as when he was an assistant scoutmaster and any other project he has tackled during his lifetime.

"If the good Lord gives you the opportunity to do something and blesses you with the finances to do it, then you're supposed to do it," he said.

For now, though, he said he is content to enjoy going fishing and spending time with wife, their four children and 10 grandchildren.