Johnston County School Board Threatened With Lawsuit

A local attorney says he will file a lawsuit as early next week against the Johnston County School Board and Johnston County Schools if they do not comply with a Public Records Request.

Jack O’Hale, a prominent Smithfield lawyer, notified school board chairperson Todd Sutton and interim Superintendent Ben Williams this morning (Friday) he will file a lawsuit if necessary to force school officials to hand over public documents requested on behalf of Kay Carroll, a candidate for the Board of Education.

At the conclusion of a January 2nd news conference on the steps of the Johnston County Courthouse, Mr. O’Hale hand delivered a copy of the Public Records Request to Todd Sutton.  A copy of the request was also mailed to then interim Superintendent Dr. Jim Causby.

O’Hale and Carroll are seeking a number of public documents including board minutes and the reason for the 2010 transfer of $16 million from Johnston County Schools to Johnston County Commissioners; records on Cenergistic including financial documents, contracts, and payments; copies of all end-of-year financial audits since 2009; budgets adopted by the school board since 2016; details on the FRECKLES educational program;  and emails and correspondence authorizing principals of each school to deviate from board policy regarding curriculum and instruction.

In a letter dated January 3, 2020, and received by Mr. O’Hale on January 6, 2020, school board attorney Jimmy Lawrence acknowledged he had received the records request. Lawrence stated in his letter, “As you are aware, school is not back in session and many of our staff are still on vacation and are not available for me to contact. I will contact the appropriate departments in the Board of Education as soon as school starts back to comply with your request.”

Mr. O’Hale responded by letter on January 8th to the school board attorney stating, “I appreciate the fact that Johnston County school system employees were on vacation but it is my understanding that all employees returned from vacation and back at work on Monday, January 3rd, 2020.”

In both the January 2nd and January 8th letters to school officials, O’Hale requested the public documents be available for examination and inspection no later than January 21st.  That date has passed without the documents being provided.

On Friday, Mr. O’Hale wrote to Interim superintendent Williams, “More than ten business days have elapsed since January 2, 2020 when the public records request was handed delivered to Chairman Todd Sutton. Please be advised that I intend to file suit on behalf of Mr. Carroll… requiring the Johnston County Board of Education / Johnston County Schools provide for inspection and examination those public records….”

“If you are represented by legal counsel and desire that I serve the summons and complaint on your lawyer, please identify the name of your attorney and I will be happy to serve the summons and complaint on your legal counsel. In the event that I have not received a response from you on or before Monday, January 27, 2020 at 5:00pm, I will request that the Sheriff of Johnston County serve you with a copy of the summons and complaint,” O’Hale stated in the two page letter.

JoCoReport reached out to Chairman Sutton for a comment about the delay in providing the public documents and the possible lawsuit.  Sutton has not responded to our request for a comment.