Dr. Lynn Smith. Source: Facebook

By Richard Sullins | richard@rantnc.com

Saying, “it’s time,” Dr. Lynn Smith resigned his seat on the Lee County Board of Education on Tuesday night. The board’s longest serving current member, Smith was appointed to fill an unexpired term in 2007. He was elected in his own right in 2008 and has been re-elected three times since then, most recently in 2020.

Smith, a Democrat, said in prepared remarks to the board that during graduation ceremonies held earlier this month, “I was filled with a huge sense of pride as our young men and women marched across the stage and stepped into the future. They have been prepped for the future for the past 12 years and are prepared for whatever the future may hold.”

Offering a challenge to his successor, he said, “we must find better ways to support and compensate our education community. The very idea that our Lee County education community is not worthy of a paltry two percent raise in local supplement is not acceptable. We must do better, we have to do better, for the people who are tasked with the awesome job of nurturing our most precious natural resource – our children.”

Board Chair Sandra Bowen, a Republican, said of Smith’s years of service, “we’ve locked horns a time or two, but I have always respected you and your tireless work to serve our students every day. Your seat will be a tough one to fill.”

In a recent interview with The Rant, Smith said he chose Tuesday’s board meeting to announce his resignation because his grandson, Will, graduated from high school the previous Friday and his granddaughter, Jenny, had done so the year before.

Smith said it was a unique opportunity as a grandfather and a board member to walk across the stage with each of them as they received their diplomas. But with his youngest grandchild still in the 8th grade, he feels the time has come to pass the baton to a younger generation of leaders.

“I’m 83 years old,” he said. “I’m as old as dirt and getting tired. My youngest granddaughter is a student at West Lee Middle School, and I would like nothing better than to stick around and walk with her across the stage, too. But I’d be nearly 90 years old by then. And one thing that I cannot do is go through another election season. It just sucks the life out of you.”

The Lee County Board of Education was a non-partisan office when Smith was first appointed, but that changed a decade ago when a local bill sponsored by then-Representative Mike Stone to made the board elections partisan. At the time of his appointment, Smith was a Republican. He later became unaffiliated before registering as a Democrat in 2015.

“If there is a benefit to bringing politics into our schools,” he said, “I have yet to see it.”

Along with Bowen and Vice Chair Christine Hilliard, Smith met with the Lee County Board of Commissioners last month in an effort to convince them to provide $1.6 million for a 2 percent increase in the local supplements for teachers and classified staff. As they did last year, the commissioners elected not to provide funding in next year’s budget for the increase.

“It was obvious pretty quickly that we were not going to get the increases we were requesting. And those are essential – not just because they help us to stay in the game with the larger systems in Wake and Durham counties who can afford to pay more, but it’s also because our teachers have earned it,” he said. “Teachers are so incredibly underpaid and I’m really disappointed that the commissioners don’t see it that way.”

Smith said he took special exception to efforts by the board of commissioners to connect potential pay increases for teachers and staff with student performance.

“A student’s final grade in any subject is based on 80 percent proficiency and 20 percent growth,” he said. “It has been shown repeatedly through studies that tests administered in that fashion are much better predictors of the socioeconomic status of the school than they are as an assessment of any student’s learning.”

School construction has been a highlight of Dr. Smith’s 15 years of service. Three new schools – Southern Lee High School, SanLee Middle School, and the W.B. Wicker Elementary School – were built during his tenure, and he was also involved in the large-scale renovation of Lee County High School.

“Building the Wicker School was just a fun project because we had very strong relationships with the county commissioners back then,” he said. “We were all pulling together toward the same goal and though we sometimes had our differences, we were always able to put those aside for the greater good. It’s not always that way now, and that’s too bad, you know, because we all live here in the same community. We should be able to get along.”

Looking toward the future, Smith said he sees some of the challenges that are ahead for Lee County Schools.

“When you stop to think that all of our elementary and middle schools are receiving free and reduced lunches, that means that 68 percent of all students in the whole county qualify for them,” he said. “That’s a huge part of what makes it harder for them to do well in school, because it’s really hard to feed the brain when the belly is hungry.”

Smith’s involvement in education was an outgrowth of his practice in orthodontics that began when he moved to Sanford 50 years ago in 1972. Over the course of five decades, his roster of patients has included many adolescents who grew up to be leaders in this community. He still maintains his dental license and fills in at the family practice when his son, Dr. Brian Smith, is out of the office.

“It’s all about building relationships,” he said. “And that’s what led me into education. I’ve worked with kids all my life and being a member of the school board was another way that I could be of help to them.”

State law gives the Lee County Democratic Party the responsibility to name a successor to serve out the remainder of Smith’s term.