By: Michelle Antoine
The resignation of Johnston County Board of Education (JCBOE) member Tracie Zukowski came as a surprise to some County residents this past week. Zukowsi won election and began to serve on the school board in December of 2018. A lifelong Johnston County resident, she was well liked and the community seemed eager to have her on board. Zukowski sold software and part of her sales territory included Johnston County schools. Her employer, Freckle by Renaissance Learning, reassigned her sales district to eliminate any conflict of interest. The consulting JCBOE Attorney at the time assured the public she was impartial and able to serve. Despite these assurances, evidence surfaced that Zukowski continued to solicit sales in Johnston County as a Board of Education member. She even attended a week-long education conference and represented both JCBOE and her employer Renaissance Learning. Many who followed her controversial term on the board saw evidence of her ongoing conflict of financial interest, duplicitous meetings, and representation of schools where she had strong objection to leadership.
With public outcry, including community members attending JCBOE meetings and requesting she resign, the upheaval for JCBOE business and Zukowski’s personal reputation were suffering. Her resignation came as a relief with many thankful she would be moving on, hopeful the JCBOE could move forward in a positive direction. It was speculated that the public distrust motivated Zukowski’s resignation, that her exit may come with a conciliatory note and an ability to reconcile relationships that were damaged. Instead, Johnston County Public Schools released a statement that she would be moving out of the County effective January 27, 2021 and was no longer qualified to hold the seat. Zukowski is quoted in the release as saying, “I will no longer have a primary residence in the county and pursuant to the residency requirement, I must resign my position on the Johnston County Board of Education.” Quickly facts emerged that she hadn’t been a resident of the county for the prior six months. She had moved in the summer of 2020 and continued serving on the JCBOE.
Zukowski and her husband bought a home in Oak Island, NC on July 30, 2020, the public record is included in this writing. She had real-estate photos taken of her Clayton home around that same time. The detailed photos show empty bedrooms with two remaining pieces of household furniture. Those two furniture items were placed for sale on OfferUp on August 2, 2020. Her empty Clayton property was listed for sale on August 20, 2020. Her Johnston County residence was vacant and her permanent residence and domicile became Oak Island, Brunswick County NC in August of 2020. Zukowsi’s social media pictures from August forward display a life of birthdays and celebrations all at her new home in Oak Island.
Zukowski wasn’t a resident of Johnston County since August 2020, but surreptitiously kept her seat. Any JCBOE Board member that knew of her change of domicile had the legal obligation to make it known the seat was vacated, so the vacancy could immediately be filled with an eligible Johnston County resident. If the JCBOE did not have the will to follow the law and vacate and fill the seat they had the obligation to make public the move of Zukowski out of the county. Doing so, the public could have challenged her voter registration in Johnston County in August of 2020. Given the easily obtained evidence, a hearing of the local Board of Election would have found her ineligible to maintain her Johnston County voting status, and her seat on the JCBOE would have immediately been rescinded. The NC Statutes provide how to handle vacancies of seats. NC General Statute 115C-37 Sec. (f) “Vacancies in Office. – All vacancies in the membership of the boards of education whose members are elected pursuant to the provisions of subsection (a)[Non-Partisan races] of this section by death, resignation, or other causes shall be filled by appointment by the remaining members of the board, of a person to serve until the next election of members of such board, at which time the remaining unexpired term of the office in which the vacancy occurs shall be filled by election.” The key determiner in this law is that the unexpired term should be filled by the next election of members of that board. We had an election of members of the JCBOE on November 3, 2020.
In the November 3, 2020 election four winners of the regular 4-year term JCBOE seats were determined. The unexpired term of Zukowski was also legally supposed to be determined in that election. The 5th vote getter in that race with 40,175 votes was Terry Tippett, and by the legal standard he should be the person filling her seat today. Terry Tippett earned the seat by lawful means. The precedent set in 2017 when Todd Sutton (current acting Board Chair) took Larry Strickland’s vacated seat, as Sutton was the fourth vote getter in a 3-seat race, further supports Tippetts rightful earning of Zukowsi’s vacated seat.
Zukowski has collected a taxpayer check for service on the JCBOE thru January of 2021, for which she has not been eligible to serve on since August 2020. Her permanent residence was in Brunswick County and she had no intent to return to Johnston County. She was not a stake holder and had no genuine interest making formative decisions for our County. She could not legally enroll a child into the Johnston Public Schools and her continuation of service outside legally permitted bounds cannot be brushed aside. The funds she collected should be returned to the taxpayers of the county.
What’s worse than the actions of Zukowsi is the possibility that JCBOE members and Administrative leaders had knowledge of her move to Brunswick County. These Johnston County School officials acted outside of the law and didn’t allow the voters to decide who would fill the seat Zukowsi held. It appears they decided to forgo the election and wait until it had passed so they could make an appointment of their choice. They had the obligation if she wouldn’t resign in August of 2020 to vacate the seat and appoint a temporary member until her unexpired term could be determined on November 3, 2020 by the citizens of the County. If the Attorneys counseling the JCBOE advised them to act in the fashion they did, with full knowledge of the circumstance in this issue, our legal counsel is also in question.
The Board should correct the actions of the last six months and immediately appoint Terry Tippett to the seat he rightfully won. Stop the farcical administrative process of applications, and do the legal, and right thing. The JCBOE has been reckless with our children’s education. The fiscal, curricular, and procedural disorder has been standard for some time now, and the public has voted in new members with hopeful desire for positive changes. As the public is desperate for transparent government, we are faced with a new level of administrative manipulation, outside the newly sworn members, an interference of voter’s rights. In a moment of time when half the country is disenfranchised with election irregularities, this is a travesty and a warning. Any JCBOE member or administrator that went along with this sham to deny voters their rightful ability to fill a vacated seat should step down. Johnston County Board of Education members are supposed to be guiding our children’s education, setting policy, supervising our finances. They’ve been entrusted by the public to act on our behalf, justly. Yet, it continues- the lawless, out of control school board. Now is the time to course correct.
Michelle Antoine, B.S., B.A., M.S. is a Johnston County resident, formerly licensed teacher, counselor, education reform advocate and mom to eight children.
This commentary has been updated