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Stories and photos by WINGATE LASSITER unless credited otherwise
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"Nice day for a town the size of Smithfield"
That's one of my all-time favorite quotations, attributed years ago by my father to N.L. Perkins, long-time fixture on the Smithfield Tobacco Market. And so it was such a day on Wednesday along the Neuse Riverwalk as a warming sun raised the afternoon's temperature to 60 degrees. Nice to see folks enjoying the break from recent wintry weather – and a pleasant place for it.


School masks optional starting Feb. 21 if ...

...fewer than 4% of students and staff at a particular school campus are infected by COVID-19 or quarantined at home because of exposure to it.

This week all of Johnston County's public schools are in the safe zone, but measurements recorded at each school on Friday, Feb. 18 will determine whether mask wearing is optional therein starting Monday the 21st.

After that, mandatory masking could return at any time to a school exceeding the 4% threshold – and would remain in force for at least 10 days. The masking status of each school will be updated daily on the school system's online COVID dashboard>

Johnston's Board of Education approved the plan at Tuesday's monthly meeting by a 6-1 vote, with Kay Carroll the only member voting no. Previously, the board had voted 4-3 every month since last summer to require mask wearing, with members Lyn Andrews, Al Byrd, and Terri Sessoms joining Mr. Carroll in the majority while Chairman Todd Sutton along with Ronald Johnson and Mike Wooten consistently voted against the mandate.

Mr. Carroll, a pharmacist by profession, said during Tuesday's discussion that it's premature to drop the mask mandate before more evidence is produced about the effectiveness, or ineffectiveness, of face coverings. "We're in a 'red' county: transmission is big; positivity is high," he pointed out. "We're all getting tired of it but I don't want us to quit before we finish the race and we get to a point where we have a comfort level that the transmission rate is not gonna go out of sight."

Ms. Andrews, who has been serving on a COVID review committee that includes the county's health director, made the motion to approve the mask-option plan, yet she predicted the number of cases in schools will rise once the masks come off.  "The number 4% was selected because that will keep us from being any worse than we have been so far," she said. "The exclusion rate will not allow us to explode with quarantines."

Following Tuesday's vote, Assistant Superintendent David Pearce reminded the board that mask wearing will still be required on school buses after Feb. 21 because of a federal mandate. He also said contact tracing of individual COVID cases among staff and students will have to resume once masks are off.

This morning's report from Johnston County Public Schools showed 87 active cases among students and staff (down from last week's 166) with 261 students and 34 staff members quarantined (down from 506 students and 57 staff a week ago). Only one school in the county – Polenta Elementary – had more than 20 students in quarantine, according to today's report. South Smithfield Elementary had eight, Smithfield Middle had three, West Smithfield Elementary and Wilson's Mills Elementary had one apiece, and Smithfield-Selma High had none.

The Johnston County Public Health Department's mid-week report shows a sharp decline in the number of new cases: 1,343 this past week, down from 4,588 the previous week. Also down is the number of Johnstonians hospitalized because of COVID: 44 this week, down from 58 a week ago. Even so, 15 more COVID fatalities were reported here this past week, raising the total since the pandemic arrived two years ago to 412.

Another local institution has been added to the county's list of major outbreaks: Barbour Court Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, with 60 current and/or former residents and 25 staff members infected. Remaining on that list this week are Smithfield Manor Nursing & Rehab (31 residents and 40 staff infected) and Johnston Correctional Institution (81 inmates and one staff member). The Johnston County Jail is not listed among major outbreaks in Wednesday's report.

Here's a drone's-eye view of the county's drive-thru COVID testing site behind the Brightleaf Flea Market on US 301 South in Smithfield. It's open 9-6 Monday-Saturday. (Photo captured from county's Facebook page)
Case total
since 3-20 
(last week)
since 3-20 
(last week)

(last week) 
Fully vaccinated *
[got boosters]
110,637: 53%**
6,345,826: 61%**
UNITED STATES 77,267,876
  213,246,140: 65%**
WORLDWIDE 404,010,392
doses worldwide
* 2 doses Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or 1 dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine
** Percentage of total population (all ages)

Data provided by: County of Johnston at 8:15 a.m. February 9
N.C. Department of Health and Human Services at 12:00 p.m. February 9
Johns Hopkins University at 7:21 a.m. February 10

ere's good reason
you've seen this sign
in many yards around

Smithfield lately...


Six more schools to be built in the decade ahead?

That's the recommendation planning consultants delivered to Johnston's Board of Education at Tuesday's monthly meeting.

Representatives from OREd, the Operations and Research Education Laboratory based at N.C. State University, said Johnston's population growth during the next 10 years is projected to add more than 6,000 students to the county's public schools: 2,800 in the elementary grades K-5, 750 in middle grades 6-8, and 2,600 in high-school grades 9-12.

With most of that growth forecast for Johnston's northwestern quadrant closest to Wake County, the consultants recommended a new high school and a new middle school for that region along with expansion of Cleveland High School. They recommended planning for four new elementary schools plus three expansions – at Cooper in Clayton, Corinth-Holders Elementary, as well as Princeton Elementary.

Board member Mike Wooten voiced concern about availability of properties for new schools and suggested the county start "land banking" potential sites.

In the meantime, Kay Carroll is heading a committee of board members who will sit down with county commissioners soon to work out the size and timing of another major bond issue to pay for new facilities in the years just ahead. Bond issues require approval by the county's voters.

SSS basketball court to be named for Coach Carl Spragins

The school board on Tuesday favorably received a recommendation to name the court inside the gym at Smithfield-Selma High School for the former teacher and coach, who passed away in October. A Health & PE teacher, Mr. Spargins was the boys' basketball coach at SSS from 1981 until 2000, when he stepped aside to serve as the school's athletic director until his retirement in 2004. A Johnston County school policy requires a 60-day waiting period before the naming can be ratified.

On another matter regarding Smithfield-Selma High, the board approved a $210,000 contract with Moseley Architects to design a multi-purpose auxiliary gymnasium at the school that will be financed by the bond issue approved by voters in 2018. Moseley Architects, by the way, is the firm overseeing construction of the county's new Detention and Public Safety centers.

Smithfield-Selma High's academic honor lists for the second quarter>

Annual audit finds county "in really good shape"

Johnston's County Commissioners received the required independent auditor's report for fiscal 2020-21 on Monday. It showed County Government's total net position increased by $67,772,517 last year, mostly from increases in property and sales-tax collections and charges for various services (such as building permits and recordings by the Register of Deeds Office).

"Johnston County's governmental funds reported combined ending fund balances of $239,366,240, an increase of $89,650,560 in comparison with the prior year," the audit report noted. That includes $78,116,283 that "is restricted or non-spendable."

As of last June 30 (the fiscal year's end), the uncommitted balance in the county's General Fund was $129,951,222, according to the report. That's 52.9% of total General Fund expenditures for the year – well above the 8.33% standard set by North Carolina's General Statutes.

The county's total debt increased by more than $69 million during 2020-21, mostly to finance water and sewer projects, school-bond issues approved by voters in 2018, and borrowing for the Detention Center currently under construction. That brought the county's total indebtedness to $507.5 million – about a third of the "legal debt margin" of $1,474,097,463 for Johnston County, according to the audit report.

"The county overall is in really good shape financially," stated Alan Thompson, a principal in the Whiteville-based auditing firm under contract in recent years to review the county's books.

The audit report's full summary is posted on the county's website>


County Commissioners appoint six to three boards

With more applicants than positions available for appointments to three advisory boards, commissioners voted by paper ballot in favor of the following:
• Johnston County Board of Health – Gary W. Carter reappointed (three others had applied for the General Public slot).
• Johnston County Planning Board – Debbie Edwards Howard newly appointed; Adam Caldwell, Michelle Pace Davis, and Freddie Hudson Jr. reappointed (three others had applied).
•Johnston-Lee-Harnett Community Action Board – Derrick Applewhite Jr. reappointed (one other person had applied for the position).

Summaries of all matters considered by the Board of Commissioners at Monday's two sessions is posted on the county's website>


First phase of expanded Water Treatment Plant is done

At the western end of what was once Hospital Road stands a new million-gallon "clear well" – a key component of a $17.5-million project expanding Smithfield's Water Treatment Plant. Town Manager Mike Scott reported to the Town Council last week that the massive in-ground tank (the second of two on the premises) "will be operational in March." He noted that the overall project, scheduled for completion by July 2023, is on budget. The expansion will increase the plant's daily treatment capacity from its current 6.2-million gallons to 8.3-million gallons in anticipation of residential and commercial growth headed our way.



real-estate broker



Smithfield Pedestrian Plan public forum next Thursday

Rescheduled because of recent wintry weather, the meeting to get public input into the development of the plan is set for 6-7 p.m. at Town Hall. Here's a preview>

Little Theatre's next show, The Outsiders, opens Feb. 18

Back in business after last year's COVID-interrupted season, the Neuse Little Theatre is presenting the third show of this, the 47th season for the all-volunteer performing troupe. Details about The Outsiders – including show times, ticket reservations, and the cast list – are posted on the NLT website>

Smithfield artist's work
part of new Selma mural

Sue Avera was one of five artists invited to produce paintings to grace a brick wall on the side of a commercial building in the heart of Uptown Selma. The project, one of several celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Johnston County Arts Council, focused on the theme of "Celebrating Love through Art, Community, and Culture." Ms. Avera's panel portrayed music, using notes and concentric swirls "to help viewers visualize healing, uplifting music being sent out into the community."
(Arts Council photo)



Click on the name to read an obituary, usually posted by the funeral home

ROSA LEE EVERETTE MARBLEY, 92 – died February 9

GEORGE A. JOHNSON, 58 – died February 6

REV. BEATRICE REAVES PENNY, 99 – died February 5

TERI (TURDIE) CALL PEARCE, 66 – died February 3

EULEE JAMES (E.J.) STEPHENS, 101 – died February 3

FRANCES McCRACKAN BLILEY, 77 – died February 1



Extra half year in office for mayor, 4 councilmen

Smithfield's mayor and four of the seven members of the Town Council are getting an extra six months in office since last November's municipal election here was postponed till May 17 (and perhaps beyond that).

The immediate blame is the redistricting lawsuit over North Carolina's federal and state legislative seats. But the root cause was last year's late delivery of U.S. Census results.

The four council seats on the ballot this time are elected by residential districts; therefore, state policy required those boundaries to be reviewed in light of 2020 U.S. Census results that weren't released to town officials in time for the normal filing period for candidates last July. That resulted in delaying the usual November municipal election until the statewide Primary Election, normally held in March.

Then came the expected judicial challenge of state and federal electoral districts adopted by the the N.C. General Assembly's Republican Party majority. That has delayed the Primary Election to mid-May – if the state's legislators can come up with a new districting plan accepted by N.C. Supreme Court justices before the end of this month.

Meanwhile, Smithfield's Mayor Andy Moore and Councilmen David Barbour, Marlon Lee, Travis Scott, and David Stevens are bound to continue serving out their current terms in office till early June (and longer if there's another election delay). And that means they'll be responsible along with the other three councilmen for the most important task facing local elected officials year in and year out: crafting the town's annual operating budget, which must be in place before July 1.

Fortunately there are no burning financial issues confronting the town just now, so things should turn out OK once all is said and done. Even so, here's another example of how biased redistricting by the state's legislature throws a monkey wrench into the gears of democracy.


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