Forgotten figures in Oceanside History


The 1910’s were a turbulent time in the Oceanside School District. It is not likely that Vann A. Smith knew what he was in for when in 1917, he agreed to become its supervising principal. Smith came to Oceanside after the tumultuous term of Supervising Principal Robert Weaver, the untimely death of Supervising Principal Joseph Carmichael and the interim appointment of L. Walter Stevens. Unbeknownst to Smith, he was hired by the Board of Education only after it was unable to come to terms with its first choice, a man named S. Taylor Johnson, when the district was unwilling to meet Johnson’s salary demands.

Smith, however, was experienced and had a solid educational background. Born on Jan. 22, 1881, in Cortland, N.Y., Smith grew up in upstate New York. There, he taught at schools in Blodgett Mills, Solon, and Cheningo while getting his teaching degree from the Cortland Normal School. He went on to teach in the Minoa, Avoca, and Port Chester school districts before coming to Oceanside.

When Smith came to Oceanside, he was in charge of a district consisting of one school building, roughly 500 students and 17 teachers. His term started out smoothly. He helped form a parent-teacher association, arranged for lectures by government experts and enhanced the overall school spirit. Smith quickly became popular with parents, teachers and students.

During this time, a progressive movement in the community started calling for the district to spend considerable amounts of money for improvements. While the BOE acknowledged that the high school lacked certain departments, an auditorium and a gymnasium, a majority on the board felt that it was not the proper time for those investments. America had just entered “The Great War,” and the government was asking for public support financially. This philosophical difference apparently strained Smith’s relationship with the board.

The breaking point came on April 16, 1918 when Smith submitted his resignation, which the board promptly accepted. No reason was given, but word was that Smith’s resignation stemmed from the its denial of his request for a salary increase from $2,000 to $2,500, declining to add an auditorium and gymnasium to the school and its decision to not increase the number of High School departments, which was anticipated when the Smith accepted the position.

The board’s acceptance of Smith’s resignation ignited a firestorm, precipitating meetings throughout the community on the matter. One resulted in more than 100 residents gathering to discuss the matter and circulate petitions on Smith’s behalf. The board was invited, but only two members attended. Both were in favor of retaining him. Additionally, students sent out a petition, signed by all except for the five who were children of board members, that Smith be retained. The petitions asked for the board to not accept Smith’s resignation, and to retain Smith for another year. Children paraded with banners that read, “We Want Mr. Smith for Our Principal” and “Mr. Smith Represents Progress.”

The community’s civic association passed its own resolution. It alleged that Smith’s resignation was not voluntary, but rather was prompted by certain board members, and had nothing to do with his management or administration of the District. They further protested the continued management of the district by these trustees on the grounds that they acted against the best interests of the district.

The split in the community was also reflected on the board. At the time, Oceanside’s BOE consisted of five individuals who served three-year terms. While the board voted 3-2 to accept Smith’s resignation, one of the members in that majority announced he was not seeking re-election. For several months, a man named George Sammis, who was backed by the progressive movement and the civic association, was the only announced candidate. These organizations became extremely confident that Sammis would be elected, the board’s majority on the matter would shift and that it would reject Smith’s resignation and allow him to continue with the district.

Unfortunately for these groups, at the BOE’s annual election meeting, a man named James Noon was also nominated. Noon defeated Sammis and won the election. There would be no reconsideration of Smith’s resignation. Smith was out, and the district proceeded in hiring its new supervising principal. And while Smith would move on with his career and eventually spend 26 years as the superintendent of schools in Burlington, N.J., his time in Oceanside has been all but forgotten.