Commissioner Chairman: “The Lights Are On At The Board Of Education But No One Is Home”

The Johnston County School Board is being criticized for its handling of an employment contract for retiring Superintendent Dr. Ed Croom that will leave Johnston County taxpayers on the hook to potentially pay $520,000 toward his state retirement benefits.  There are also questions being raised about when school leaders first realized this was a problem and why no county commissioner was notified.

The News & Observer first reported last Friday, the upcoming March 1st retirement of Dr. Croom will be the first time the county has to contribute a payment towards the retirement of a superintendent.

When Dr. Croom was first hired in 2009, he received many perks, like a $15,000 per year car allowance and $3,060 towards telephone expenses, outside of his salary. In 2011, under a new contract, those perks were rolled into his salary, increasing his annual county supplement from $20,000 to $64,750.  Included with his state pay, his current salary is $215,022.40.

This is not the first time the superintendents salary has come into question. In December, WTSB News first reported Dr. Croom’s replacement, Deputy Superintendent Dr. Ross Renfrow was given a 94 percent pay increase by the school board, from $110,600 to $215,022, effective March 1st when he takes over.

Tony-Braswell-2-10-16“The Lights Are On… But No One Is Home”
Johnston County Commissioner Chairman Tony Braswell told WTSB News in part, “Once again compensation issues involving the Superintendent of the Johnston County School System are in the headlines. The recent disclosure of Dr. Renfrow’s contract and this current story reported by the media regarding Dr. Croom’s retirement, both men were thrust into the headlines, not by their own doing, but by the actions of the Board of Education. Quickly, fingers started pointing eluding that this is political and done for political gain either by myself or others. How can something that is factual be considered political? Yes, it is true that some members of the Johnston County Board of Commissioners and the Johnston County Board of Education are seeking reelection or election to other positions. However, just because there is an election we cannot and must not stop governing. ”

“With all the conversations about trying to increase supplements for classroom teachers, why was this increased? Is the new Superintendent’s salary structured this way? Did the Board members know their actions would create a spike? When did this issue become known?  Why didn’t Board of Education members suggest meetings with the commissioners or at least conversations with the commissioners? The commissioners, as well as the public are only asking for answers that should have been provided long ago.”

“With all this being said, to say I am angry would be an understatement. Citizens have expressed maybe the lights are on with the Board of Education, but no one is home,” Braswell said.

School Board Chairman Larry Strickland released a statement Monday saying in part, “In 2014 the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law that addressed concerns of the State Retirement System.  The issue that is being raised with the retirement system is an issue that the Board of Education had nothing to do with.  The Board feels the issues that are being addressed will be addressed in the proper manner and have directed their legal counsel to look into the matter.  The Board has been advised that since this is a personnel matter under State law that it should have no further comment concerning any particulars or details of the issue.”

Strickland contends he had no formal notification from the N.C. Retirement System concerning Dr. Croom’s retirement.

Representative Leo Daughtry of Smithfield said, “It is not for me to decide what his salary is. I am not on the school board and they know what his responsibilities are more than I do. What I don’t want to see happen is the county pay for his retirement. That is not a good thing.” Daughtry went on to say the NC General Assembly could not change Dr. Croom’s current retirement but could “certainly tighten up the retirement (system) to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Taxpayer Dollars Could Be Better Spent
NC Senator Brent Jackson said, “It is my opinion that taxpayer dollars could be better used than in this manner.”

Keith Branch, a member of the Johnston County School Board, who is running for Johnston County Commissioner, says he is disappointed and began asking questions as soon as he learned about the issue last week.  “I immediately started asking questions and will continue to do my duty to figure out the details of the issue and determine what measures can be taken now and in the future.   I cannot speak as to when other Board members may have known about the issue and the possible effect it would have on Johnston County.  But if there was knowledge and it was not shared with the Board in its entirety and the other leadership of our county, then I am extremely disappointed that they felt they had the authority to withhold pertinent information from other elected officials.”

County Commissioner Jeff Carver said the school board should be spending supplement funds on teachers and not the superintendent. “I, as all the Commissioners, was completely caught off-guard by the recent news reports by the N&O and WTSB. Current or deferred tax burdens placed on the citizens of Johnston County should have been discussed thoroughly and the decision made very transparent by the Board of Education.  Furthermore, supplement money should be spent in the classroom for teacher recruitment and to retain the most valuable talent available.”

I Hope Board Of Education Has Extra Money Lying Around
The $520,000 will be a lump sum payment that must be paid into the state retirement system once Dr. Croom retires. WTSB asked Carver where the money would come from.

“I’m unsure about the lump-sum requirement or is there an opportunity to be paid over a longer period of time.  If needed immediately I hope the Board of Education has some extra money lying around!  If not, I would suggest that it be a budgeted item in the school system’s next year’s current expense allocation from the County.   But let’s be clear, this would not be an add-on or increase in their current expense determination.”

School Board Candidates React
Reaction among some of the candidates running for the Board of Education varies.

Chip Swartz said, “I was not only infuriated, but also heartbroken, at the news that our county has potentially been placed on the hook to pay more than half-a-million in pension benefits to Dr. Croom in retirement.  The danger in creating “salary monsters” at the county level is underscored when you consider that Johnston County is losing many of its best and brightest teachers to neighboring counties due to uncompetative teacher supplement pay.  Neighboring counties are poaching these teachers with little response from school leaders, all while the demands on our school facilities and faculty have never been greater.”

Ronald Johnson, another candidate spoke out on the retirement issue saying, “People trust the Board of Education and Superintendent to be fiscally responsible with taxpayer money and to provide our children with the best education possible. This newly released financial information is a burden upon the taxpayers of Johnston County.  I, like many others, have looked to current Board members for answers and I continue to wait. It is inexcusable not to have an answer when we are spending half of a million dollars to benefit one person’s retirement. This is especially true when teachers, teaching assistants and other employees within the county are grossly underpaid…. When the public wants an explanation, the (school) board members have nothing to say. They claim to be a voice for students and teachers. Their silence indicates otherwise.”

Johnson said while the superintendent’s salary may be in line with other school superintendents salaries across the US, Johnston County teachers are only being paid 73 percent of the national average teacher pay.  “School leaders should keep this in mind before they start publicly advocating what they believe they deserve.”

Todd Sutton defended the school board and superintendent. “Based upon what I have read items like this will not be any consequence to the tax payers of Johnston County going forward.”

Dr. Croom
The man at the center of the controversy, Dr. Croom, told WTSB News the issue was purely political and would not have made news had it not been for the 2016 elections. “My contract simply is transparent as it can be. I wanted my contract to be transparent so taxpayers would know what we’re doing. Who knew in 2011 that changes in the legislature would create this disaster. I appreciate the (school) board being transparent. This is more than that. It is about political issues. I hope people can see through this.”

Ed-Croom-2-10-16Croom was referring to the race for NC House District 28 between Commissioner Chairman Braswell and School Board Chairman Strickland.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting Dr. Croom said he had retained an attorney and was looking into whether personal retirement information was made public without his consent prior to him cashing his first retirement check.

This is not the first funding dispute between commissioners and the school board. In August 2013, Commissioner DeVan Barbour expressed concerns over the school board’s spending priorities in a $57 million school referendum saying not enough emphasis was being placed on the classrooms.

In 2010, when Johnston County school teachers did not receive any salary increases, the school board found money to give 6 of the 11 highest paid school system employees, all at the Central Office, a pay raise. School officials defended the raises in October 2010 saying the 6 employees were assigned additional duties, but were still not required to work more than 40 hours per week.  Superintendent Dr. Ed Croom told WTSB News at the time the 6 employees “had their plates full and it was only fair to give compensation to them.”  The six salary increases added $53,000 to the 2010-11 budget.

Social Media Backlash
Since the WTSB article ran last Friday, reaction on the WTSB Facebook page has been overwhelmingly against the school system. Among the comments:

“Wow. And to think as a NC retiree I qualify for food stamps. What’s wrong with that picture?”

“Now we know why teacher pay is so low. He should be ashamed of himself.”

“Just saying as a human being I’d be ashamed to know I’m taking that home.”

“Something isn’t clicking here….think there is more behind this story.”

“With the schools as bad as they are its best for him to move on! Start from the top and clean house. Our school board really needs to understand the contracts they are voting for!”

“How can anyone ever claim to care for the school system and the kids and walk away with that on their soul? Not this lady. Not anyone worth holding the title.”

“No wonder teachers cannot get a pay raise. We know who politicians think is important.”

Ross-Renfrow-2-10-16New Superintendent
Even before Dr. Ross Renfrow takes over for Dr. Croom, his contract again is coming under increased scrutiny.  Among the new leaders contract perks are a 3 percent cost of living increase, with the first annual increase coming on July 1, 2016, just 4 months after assuming his new role.  He will receive 15 days of annual leave and be reimbursed for both in-county and out-of-county travel.  In addition, the school board agreed to give Dr. Renfrow an additional $10,000 per year to go into a retirement plan of his choice.

Within 90 days of his start date as superintendent, the school board and superintendent will agree upon 5 specific goals the board would like to meet. For each goal achieved by Renfrow, he will receive $2,500 for each goal, with a maximum amount of $15,000 for all 6 goals satisfactorily achieved.

Both Renfrow and Croom’s salary are equal to the average pay received by five NC school teachers.