By Mark Lane
Just when I thought the citizens of Johnston County could have confidence in the work of the local school board, that confidence was destroyed by the events of the past week.
First let us look at the resignation of school board member Tracie Zukowski. Zukowski’s tenure on the school board has been filled with controversy since she took office in 2018.The financial conflict of interest between Freckles by Renaissance Learning who employed Zukowski and the Johnston County School System was just one controversy in which Zukowski was a part of. Controversy also arose between Zukowski and a community where she was a liaison to an area high school which also tarnished her term as a school board member after a citizen publicly asked her to resign.
Now we come to the past week when Zukowski submitted her resignation to school board chairman Todd Sutton. It was all well and good until it was revealed that the Zukowski’s purchased a home in Oak Island NC on July 30,2020. There was much evidence produced in an article by Michelle Antoine on February 1, 2021 on JoCo Report in which I will not repeat here but I did notice Zukowski attended a few school board meetings virtually. I will give her the benefit of doubt she was virtual because of COVID-19 but then again who knows?
Zukowski had not only an ethical and moral obligation, but possibly a legal obligation to submit her letter of resignation to the school board at the time she moved outside of Johnston County. It is my opinion she should repay the salary she received from the Johnston County citizens from the time she moved from Johnston County until her resignation date which by the way is a round $1465 per month. Also, she should be investigated to determine if any laws were broken.
Now let us look at the present school board. First, I commend school board member Ronald Johnson for asking for an outside independent investigation. However, I find it hard to believe that some board members were not aware of Zukowski’s move to another county. In my opinion Mr. Wooten nor Mr. Johnson had any knowledge of the out of county move due to both not being a close ally to Zukowski. The two new board members, Mr. Carroll and Ms. Andrews also probably had no knowledge of Zukowski’s move after only taking office in December. The two remaining Board members, Ms. Sessoms and Mr. Sutton were close allies to Zukowski, and it seems hard to believe those two knew nothing of Zukowski’s move.
Each board member needs to be questioned by an outside agency to determine what if anything they knew about the move or timing of the move. If it is determined that any board member had knowledge of Zukowski being a member of the school board after she moved to another county that would be against all ethics and morals the public believed our school board held and that board member should resign immediately. With the controversies the school board has had these past two years there is no place for unethical behavior from board members. I also call for an investigation to see if any items Zukowski voted on while living in another county are legal.
Finally, the vacant seat should have been filled in the past general election in November. Of course, it was not filled so here lies another controversy. I agree with Ronald Johnson in thinking Terry Tippett should fill the vacant seat. However stranger things have happened and now the school board is accepting letters of intent to apply for the vacant seat. I submitted a letter of intent yesterday. My reason for submitting a letter is evidently Terry Tippet may not be a sure thing to fill the vacant seat. If I could get a guarantee that Terry Tippett would receive the vacant seat, I will immediately withdraw my letter of intent.
It is time for the Johnston County School Board to step up again and do the right thing. Please ask for an outside investigation into Tracie Zukowski’s resignation and the timeline she moved from Johnston County. If there was any wrongdoing by Zukowski, the board should ask for the money she received when living out of Johnston County to be repaid immediately. Please restore faith in each board member by determining when or if they were aware of Zukowski’s move from Johnston County. If any board member had knowledge of Zukowski serving on the Johnston County School Board while living in Oak Island NC, due to unethical behavior they should resign immediately.
Mark Lane is a Smithfield resident and 2020 candidate for the Johnston County Board of Education.
You will find an interpretation of the legal precedent for an elected official’s change of address in Coates’ Canons: NC Local Government Law – “Residency Changes by Elected Officials” written by Robert P. Joyce. Joyce is a Professor of Public Law and Government at UNC’s School of Government. This document is available online.
In an earlier attempt to discredit the BOE, an overzealous individual took the liberty of accusing the BOE of illegal activity. This individual offers no proof of legal wrongdoing but declares that the BOE acted illegally by failing to act on an assumption which may have been held by others. While the individual quotes NC General Statutes, she leaves out critical facts and erroneously assigns accountability to the BOE for investigating and enforcing conditions covered in those statutes. Furthermore, there are no General Statutes establishing procedures for removal from municipal office.
One can legally hold office in a jurisdiction where that individual is eligible to vote for the office he/she holds. As long as Traci Zukowski was eligible to vote in JoCo, she was eligible to hold her BOE seat, and the BOE had no obligation to address her eligibility. It is not the BOE’s job to police voter registration records or to challenge a member’s eligibility to hold office when that member is registered to vote in the appropriate jurisdiction.
Once Zukowski moved ANY REGISTERED VOTER could have filed a challenge to her registration with the Board of Elections prior to the November election. ANY of her local acquaintances, friends, neighbors, personal and/or political nemeses, etc. could have filed a challenge. No one chose to do this even though local social media gossip clearly indicates others were suspicious. Had someone taken this action and established that she was no longer eligible to vote, she would have likely resigned from her BOE position earlier, or other BOE members would have had legal grounds to pursue her resignation. The writer of the earlier op-ed piece admits that she is aware of the process for discovering voter registration records and challenging eligibility, and it is possible that she herself might have been able to take earlier steps to disqualify Zukowski from continuing to hold her seat on the BOE prior to the November election.
While it appears Zukowski’s move may have been permanent, only she can answer the question of her intent. In the meantime, she remained registered to vote in JoCo until she registered to vote in Brunswick County on February 8, 2021. Her Letter of Resignation went into effect on January 27, 2021, 13 days prior to the day she was no longer legally eligible to hold her seat on the BOE.
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