Op-Ed by Ronald Johnson, Johnston County School Board
Johnston County Public Schools has been in the news a lot recently due to a mismanagement of money and personnel issues. Unfortunately, the problems go beyond a lack of competence and integrity. There are serious ethical and moral deficiencies to go with the financial crisis facing the school system. My goals in this editorial are to give the public the explanations they deserve and expose specific examples of corruption that have devastated our school system.
The financial crisis plaguing Johnston County Public Schools is a result of poor decisions and a lack of leadership. I have been elected for 3 years and from the beginning I have warned these reckless and thoughtless practices would come at a cost. The costs are low performing schools and a shortage of 9 million dollars.
I want to recap a few of the irresponsible spending practices which have put us in this situation. These practices alone are not solely responsible for our current budget crisis. However, I propose this trend of short-sighted decisions which did not focus on true net improvements in education for our kids has now put us in a serious financial bind as school performance suffers.
In March 2017, I lost a 6 to 1 vote that caused West Smithfield Elementary and South Smithfield Elementary to change their calendars. Since the calendar change both schools have experienced historic drops in their school rating and test scores.
In October 2017, I lost a 5 to 1 vote that gave Johnston County Public School’s highest paid employees an average raise of $10,563.30 each when our teachers only received a $350 raise.
Selma Middle School Mascot Change
In March 2018, Teresa Grant and I voted against the mascot change at Selma Middle School. I did not believe the premise, changing a mascot to improve the school, was going to be effective at increasing student performance. A major point of contention was how much the mascot change would cost. I estimated $50,000 and was called a liar. Soon after the original article ran, a cost analysis was conducted and it was later determined the mascot change would cost $48,000. Almost 2 years later, the mascot change has done nothing to improve school performance and the school system is still making financial commitments before they know how much it will cost.
The Financial Shortfall
Many of the above mentioned expenses, and other failed policies, are recurring expenses that are being drawn off of a diminishing asset, the fund balance. Basically, we had a fixed amount of money and we took on recurring expenses that depleted the money we had on hand. Also, our Exceptional Children population, students who receive extra services for learning disabilities, is at 17% and we are only funded at 12.5% by the State of North Carolina. North Carolina funds every county at 12.5%, which means some counties get extra money and some counties do not get enough money. Unfortunately, Johnston County is one of the counties that does not receive enough funding to cover all the Exceptional Children expenses. When the money does not come from the state, it has to be made up locally and we have to pay the difference which is approximately 8 million dollars.
Dr. Renfrow’s departure from JCPS
I think a major concern among the public was Dr. Renfrow’s separation agreement with Johnston County Public Schools. An explanation is long overdue, and while I can’t speak for the Board of Education, I can certainly speak for myself.
My annual salary as a police officer is $49,233.66 and it is an understatement to say it pained me to know someone walked away with $75,000 for simply leaving their job. I approved it because the other options were even more costly to the taxpayers. If there was a conflict with the Superintendent’s departure, no matter if it was termination or retirement, both parties would have been entitled to arbitration and have a mediator hear the case. This process could have gone on for up to 3 months, while all parties involved would draw their salary. For the superintendent alone I would estimate that would have cost $62,500. Depending on the ruling of the arbitrator, and possibly even a judge, it could have cost us upward of $300,000 in addition to the Superintendent still drawing his income, plus attorney fees, and arbitration fees.
Corruption and deception led us to financial problems.
Board Members and high ranking officials in Johnston County Public Schools have engaged in corrupt and deceptive practices. The deception includes misleading the public regarding the school system’s finances, engaging in conflicts of interest for what appears to be financial benefit, and attempting to manipulate and coerce employees to engage in unethical and illegal activities.
In 2017, I intercepted an email between a board member and Dr. Renfrow which explicitly discussed misrepresenting financial matters to the public. I confronted those involved, who acknowledged and apologized for the email. As a result, the inaccurate financial report was never communicated to the public.
Another major public concern was the handling of the Clayton High School Investigation. On June 9th 2019, an individual brought me allegations against Clayton High School. On June 10th 2019, I turned over all documentation to the other board members and the superintendent. I was under the impression the school system would investigate the incident, address any issues, and move on from the incident. I entrusted the school system to investigate this incident fairly, a huge mistake on my part.
Instead of conducting a proper investigation, a high ranking official and board member approached Bennett Jones and Hunter Jenks asking them to publicly attack me in exchange for job security and promotions. Hunter Jenks was offered an opportunity to be an Assistant Principal if he would rally public support against me. Bennett Jones was told he could be the next Superintendent of Johnston County Public Schools. When they did not buy in to the corruption, Jenks was punished and Dr. Jones was removed from Clayton High School. It would have been so easy for them to attack me in exchange for advancement and more money. I want to express my gratitude to them for not taking their respective deals or participating in the unethical behavior.
When I learned about the corruption surrounding the Clayton High School investigation, and board members and district leaders trying to coerce school employees; I confronted those responsible for the unethical investigation practices. In retaliation for confronting them, the high ranking officials and a board member attempted to have me falsely arrested in order to cover their misconduct.
The misconduct by the board member and high ranking official forced Johnston County Public Schools to call in a special law firm to investigate the allegations which cost tens of thousands of dollars, more money we could not afford to spend.
In the past month, I discovered a company received special treatment and access to sell their products to Johnston County Public Schools. A board member was allowed to promote, market, and solicit products for this company to our schools, which is a conflict of interest. Even in this budget shortfall, the school system spent money it did not have with an organization that has direct ties with a board member. These kinds of actions have to stop immediately.
For the past 3 years, I reported all of the above mentioned misconduct to a person in a position of authority, a person who I have known my entire life. Approximately 3 months ago, I found the person I trusted to help me had taken steps to protect those involved in the corruption and was also involved in unethical actions. I have told all of the board members about the misconduct, in writing and face to face. I know some of the board members want this corruption to stop, some are afraid, and others are involved.
In my experience, people who are involved in criminal activity and corruption become less comfortable to continue their actions if they are exposed. My goal is to expose this behavior in order to stop it and give the public the answers they so rightfully deserve. I hope the public has more insight now. We can’t fix a problem until we acknowledge there is one. The Board of Education has collectively made mistakes and the state’s underfunding of children with disabilities services is also a part of the financial problem in Johnston County Schools. I am confident we can get through this if those involved stop their unethical and selfish actions, and instead focus on taking ownership of their expensive mistakes in order to regain the public’s trust and solve this financial crisis.