School Board Approves Financial Settlement With Clayton High Principal Dr. Bennett Jones

SMITHFIELD – The Johnston County Board of Education emerged from closed session this afternoon and approved a financial and legal settlement with Clayton High School Principal Dr. Bennett Jones.

Through his attorney, W. Stacy Miller II, with Miller Law Group of Raleigh, Dr. Jones had threatened to file a civil lawsuit against Johnston County Schools and the Johnston County Board of Education, with the exception of school board member Ronald Johnson.

Letter: Central Office Transfer Was Retaliation By Former Superintendent
In a copy of the six-page letter dated June 18, 2020 from Miller Law Group to Johnston County Public Schools, and obtained by Johnston County Report, Dr. Jones’s attorney said the popular high school principal was “…wrongfully transferred from his post in August of 2019 and placed in an administrative role at Central Office. Dr. Jones filed a grievance of his transfer, citing the move as retaliatory in nature by then superintendent Dr. Ross Renfrow. After Dr. Renfrow abruptly resigned in late August, Dr. Jones’s grievance against the superintendent and chief of human resources was incorrectly assigned to the incoming interim superintendent (Dr. Jim Causby), rather than being heard by the BOE (Board of Education).”

Clayton High School Principal Dr. Bennett Jones

The letter further states Dr. Causby “…decided to follow the incorrect findings of Deputy Superintendent Dr. Paula Coates and released a public statement on 13 September 2019, which falsely claimed that 13 Clayton High School students received diplomas without meeting graduation criteria… However, Dr. Jones was able to provide documentation to Dr. Causby disproving the allegations.”

Jones was reinstated as principal at Clayton High School on October 14, 2019. But in a public information release on October 7, 2019, it was announced Dr. Jones would be placed on probation by Dr. Causby.

“This baseless investigation, public disparagement, and publication of his probation have been an attack on Dr. Jones’s character, prevented him from advancement within Johnston County, and prevented him from obtaining employment opportunities in education elsewhere,”  attorney Miller wrote in his letter to the school board and school board attorney’s Ken Soo and Maura O’Keefe.

Claim: Zukowski Attempted To Silence Clayton High Principal
“This concerted campaign to oust Dr. Jones was orchestrated by board member Tracie Zukowski, aided by other county officials, in an attempt to silence Dr. Jones and cover up her activity with the education curriculum company Freckle. Zukowski is a sales executive for Freckle. After she became a board member, she encouraged district and school leaders to buy Freckle’s curriculum products and services. Zukowski and other board members claim to have disclosed this conflict and requested that Freckle assign a new sales representative to Johnston County. No new sales representative was ever assigned. Numerous news outlets have reported that Zukowski continues to contact county employees on behalf of Freckle, while remaining on the board, and obtained approximately $60,000 in sales during the 2019-2020 school year for Freckle products. Zukowski has come under significant public scrutiny for this overt conflict of interest between her duties to the county and her own financial incentives as a saleswoman for Freckle,”  attorney Miller wrote.

“JCPS officials – including school board member Zukowski – have initiated and continued a corrupted campaign to punish and silence Dr. Jones through false allegations, hostile workplace actions, and public disparagement. Furthermore, when board member Zukowski learned of Dr. Jones’s return to Clayton High, she attempted to influence Dr. Causby to reconsider his decision by communicating that Johnston County Commissioners would withhold needed funding for schools if Dr. Jones were to indeed return.”

“Despite some of these unscrupulous actions coming to public light, Zukowski and other JCPS officials have continued to interfere with Dr. Jones’s probation.”

Claims against Dr. Jones were proven to be false but his reputation was harmed and he was defamed, Miller said, adding the school board violated his clients First Amendment rights, the NC Constitution, and interfered with his employment contract when he was removed as principal.  “Furthermore, since he has returned as principal at Clayton High School, Board Member Zukowski, along with JCPS central office personnel, worked collectively to create hurdles for Dr. Jones’s attempts to meet the terms of his probation. Thus JCPS officials are liable in their individual capacities for the tortious interference with Dr. Jones’s employment contract.”

Divided Board Approves $53,190 Settlement
Following a 25-minute closed session to discuss the claims against them, the school board emerged from closed session and voted 5-to-2 to pay Dr. Jones $53,190.   School board vice chair Dr. Peggy Smith and Tracie Zukowski voted against the settlement.

Prior to the vote Dr. Smith said, “I have studied this for the past few months. I have listened to Council and (we) need to clear this off our plates, but I am not happy with taxpayers doing what taxpayers have to do. That’s my opinion. That’s all I have to say.”

Zukowski added, “I know that our attorney negotiated this settlement. He also encouraged us not to enter into the settlement… and based on that, that’s how I will be making my decision tonight.”

Ronald Johnson responded to Dr. Smith’s comments stating, “I have studied this a year and one month since this has been going on and how this may not be a wise use of taxpayers dollars… taxpayers dollars aren’t why we’re here. Its individuals on this board is why we’re here. I’m very concerned over the actions of some of my colleagues.”  Johnson then said he would be forwarding additional audio recordings of school board members to the local media for the public to know what has really transpired.  (Johnston County Report received an audio recording from Mr. Johnson at the conclusion of the meeting. We have not reviewed the contents of the recordings.)

Chairman Todd Sutton said, “I’ve heard all sides.. I just think it’s time to put this to bed and focus on student achievement. That’s my take on it.”

Teresa Grant added, “When we brought Dr. Causby in as interim, he couldn’t do anything with student improvement because most of his time was spent with this situation. We have Dr. Bracy coming on board and we need him to focus on students and our budget… and let him focus on what we need to focus on.”

Board member Mike Wooten then requested a vote be taken on the settlement.  Chairman Sutton, Mike Wooten, Ronald Johnson, Teresa Grant and Terri Sessoms voted to pay $53,190 to settle Dr. Jones’s claims.  Tracie Zukowski and Dr. Peggy Smith voted against.  The motion passed by a vote of 5-to-2.

Johnson Released From Legal Claims In April 2020
Johnston County Report has also obtained an April 8, 2020 email from Dr. Jones’s attorney to Smithfield lawyer Walter Schmidlin III who personally represents Ronald Johnson.  The email confirms Mr. Johnson released audio recordings of Tracie Zukowski and Dr. Causby to Jones attorney. For providing the recordings and for his “cooperation” and “transparency” Johnson was released individually from any liability claims related to any legal action by Jones against the Board of Education.

Dr. Jones has been principal at Clayton High School since 2016. He was named Johnston County Public Schools Principal of the Year for 2017-2018.