Pivotal Time For Johnston County Public Schools

Op-Ed By: Rick Mercier
Candidate for Johnston County Board of Education

As we kick off Public Schools Week, we find ourselves in a pivotal time for Johnston County Public Schools. Our children’s school system faces a severe fiscal crisis and an equally severe leadership crisis. We need dramatic change if we are to have the superior schools that all of our children deserve.

I am hopeful because of what I see in our schools—and because so many of the parents, grandparents, educators and support staff I have met in recent weeks have told me that they are ready for a change in our school system’s leadership. They are ready to clean house.

I have been humbled by the enthusiasm my campaign’s message has generated. And I want to use this opportunity to briefly explain how we will translate that enthusiasm into action when I am elected to the Board of Education.

The first thing the new school board will focus on is multiyear planning for operational budgets and capital needs. I want the new school board to have a joint retreat with county commissioners within a few months of being seated. We will come out of that retreat—which will be open to the public and media—with clear direction on an operational budget for the next fiscal year, on a budget model for the next five years, and on a capital plan that will enable us to catch up on school construction and expansions and renovations of existing schools.

The capital plan must make equity a priority when siting new schools and improving existing ones. An acceptable plan will close the gap between haves and have-nots in our county not widen it.

Second, we will take steps to make growth commensurate with school capacity. Specifically, I’ll be insistent that commissioners change zoning regulations so that they can deny or delay new residential subdivisions until a time when we have adequate school facilities to meet the needs of those new subdivisions. County government can claim that power; in fact, the county’s comprehensive plan recommends consideration of such rules.

Third, we’ll reform Central Office and Facility Services. There is broad consensus across the county that we should look at restructuring Central Office. Our school system has become top heavy; the focus must be on directing resources to classrooms. I will make that a top priority.

We also need to scrutinize contracts made by Central Office and Facility Services—and in some cases approved by the school board. There have been allegations of wrongdoing and of contracts that are fleecing the school system. The Cenergistic and Freckle contracts are obvious examples that have been in the news.

We also need to take a closer look at the bidding process in Facility Services. In 2017, there were allegations of fraud involving Facility Services’ bidding practices. According to emails I have obtained as part of a public records request, 200 computer files containing financial records were deleted by a director in Facility Services amid concerns about possible fraud. I have asked to see those files. Perhaps not surprisingly, JCPS has been stonewalling me.

Another thing I will champion early on in my term is getting funding from commissioners to hire bus drivers who will take over that role from teaching assistants. Our teaching assistants should be in the classrooms and only in the classrooms. They should not be pulled out of them to drive buses. And we should absolutely not be losing great teaching assistants because they do not feel that they are equipped to drive buses.

These will be my top priorities as I begin my term. I will constantly listen to you and develop other priorities over time.

I believe that I am uniquely qualified to serve on the school board. I know good government because I’ve been practicing it for more than nine years in a leadership position in Garner. I have a well-established commitment to transparent government. I’m on the board of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, which protects your right to know what government is up to. Finally, I am a parent like many of you. I will listen to your concerns.

I hope to have the honor to serve you. Let’s clean house!

Rick Mercier has been the public information officer and communications manager for the Town of Garner for the past nine years. Prior to assuming a leadership role in local government, Rick was editor of The Clayton News-Star and the North Carolina stringer for Agence France-Presse. He also served in editing and writing roles at daily newspapers in Virginia, Alabama and Taiwan. Rick currently serves as vice president of N.C. City and County Communicators and is a board member of the N.C. Open Government Coalition. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. Rick and his wife, Lara Perry, have two daughters in Johnston County Public Schools.