One day after DeVan Barbour, Vice Chairman of the Johnston County Board of Commissioners, criticized Larry Strickland, Chairman of the Johnston County School Board, for the handling of school funds and refuting claims made by Strickland last week, Cookie Pope, a member of the Board of Commissioners weighed in on the controversy on Tuesday.
County Commissioners have expressed concern after a Feb. 5th News & Observer article indicated $520,000 in county tax dollars would go towards the pension of retiring superintendent Dr. Ed Croom. Commissioner Chairman Tony Braswell said he and other board member knew nothing about the pension payment until the article was published. Braswell said he and others commissioners have asked Strickland when he first knew about the funding issue and why commissioners were never notified. He says he has not gotten a direct answer.
Strickland did not address those questions specifically, but did indicate school leaders had used taxpayers money wisely and had even returned $20 million to the county to prevent commissioners from having to raise property taxes. Barbour denied the claims Monday saying a tax increase had never been discussed in his 11 years on the board, and revealed for the first time a savings account the school system had in 2009 that contained approximately $40 million. While that money was sitting in a bank account, Barbour said school leaders, including Strickland, came to commissioners seeking to borrow $30 million due to cost overruns for the construction of two high schools. Barbour said the school board never told commissioners about the $40 million in cash reserves, and only admitted to having the money on hand after commissioners uncovered school system financial records.
In an exclusive interview Tuesday with WTSB, Commissioner Pope weighed in on the controversy for the first time. “It is difficult for hard working men and women to understand how the Johnston County School Board could give a retiring superintendent $520,000 as a pension boost at the expense of the taxpayers.”
Pope said her phone has been ringing off the hook since the story first broke. “Yes, they are calling me and other Commissioners to express their concerns.”
“Teachers and parents supplement classroom needs, and the salary of teachers begs for improvement, while the school board places a retirement package as a priority. That is difficult to understand,” Pope said.
“The School Board does not need to blame it on the County Commissioners when they try to explain why teacher supplements and other items are not included in their upcoming budget. We all know better. The County Commissioners have worked hard to fund educational needs, keep the tax rate constant and the fund balance healthy for a strong bond rating…and will continue to do so. The taxpayers of this County are wise, frugal and prudent. They are not easily fooled or duped when it comes to how elected officials spend their money.”
“Chairman Strickland needs to answer the questions by telling the citizens of Johnston County what he knows about the pension bonus, when he first learned of it and why he never told the taxpayers and Commissioners,” Commissioner Pope said.
Last week, Chairman Braswell indicated the lights were on at the board of education but no one was at home, referring to his concerns about the management and spending priorities of school leaders. After the comments were made, Chairman Strickland requested an apology.
Braswell did not issue an apology Tuesday afternoon, but did join Commissioner Pope in asking when did Strickland first learn about the Superintendent’s salary issue and why were no county commissioners notified.
“The stage was set and the characters were casted when one day after a retirement story appeared in the N&O and WTSB, the following statement was released “This is political, this would not be a news story if there was not an election taking place. I hope the people can see through this,” Braswell said referring to comments made last week.
“Since then there has not been any information or explanation given by anyone. All we have seen is a personal attack of me and a false narrative of the counties fund balance. Let me be perfectly clear, neither the county commissioners or myself had any knowledge, participated, leaked, or in any other matter had anything to do with the content or facts of this story.”
“With that said, we need to end this madness, close the book on this issue now. Again we are asking Chairman Strickland what is the timeline, how did all this start and what did Senator (Brent) Jackson mean when he stated he was not made aware of all the facts and if he knew the whole story he would not of done this? I sincerely believe the people deserves an answer. Yes I do believe the people can see through this, simply portraying me, as the villain just is not going to work.”
Commissioner Chairman Braswell and School Board Chairman Strickland are both running for the NC House District 28 seat subject to the March 15th primary. A third Republican candidate is also running for the office.