School Board Chairman, Johnson Hold Press Conferences As Both Sides Dig In

School Board Chairman Todd Sutton (center) is joined by board of education members Terri Sessoms (left) and Tracie Zukowski (right) on the steps of the Johnston County Courthouse in Smithfield for a press conference on Thursday, January 2, 2020. Photo

SMITHFIELD – Johnston County School Board Chairman Todd Sutton held a press conference this afternoon (Thursday) on the steps of the Johnston County Courthouse in Smithfield addressing recent allegations by board member Ronald Johnson.  Among those claims, Johnson alleges school leaders have failed to respond to reports two female employees were sexually harassed while at work, a finance official purposely lied, and a fellow school board member engaged in a conflict of interest by promoting products for her employer, an educational software company, to school principals.

The drama is unfolding while Johnston County Schools is facing a budget shortfall and has requested $8.8 million in additional funds to operate through June 30, 2020. County Commissioners have not responded to the spending request.

Sutton said Thursday the claims Johnson have made are totally untrue. He cited an October 2019 annual audit report that indicated Johnston County School finances received a clean bill of health and the system was stable.   He said Johnson has failed to provide any evidence to support his claims to any member of the school board or interim superintendent.

Sutton was joined at the press conference by board members Terri Sessoms and Tracie Zukowski.  Zukowski is the board member accused by Johnson of having a conflict of interest for allegedly promoting software sales to Johnston County Schools.  Sessoms and Zukowski did not speak during the press conference, but Sutton said a December 3, 2019 email to the school board attorney indicated there was no conflict of interest. He did not provide a copy of the email to the media.

Johnson claimed in a Dec. 30th interview he was in a meeting last year with Superintendent Dr. Jim Causby, Sutton, and Teresa Grant during which Causby allegedly told them a finance officer had lied about the financial situation of Johnston County Schools. On Thursday,  Sutton said Grant was unable to attend the press conference but  told him she had no recollection of Dr. Causby making those comments. Sutton also said he also did not remember the superintendent saying anyone had lied.

Sutton said he asked Johnson during the December 2019 board meeting that if he had any evidence of financial misappropriations or other issues to notify the board.  Sutton said Johnson had not provided any evidence to support his claims.

Also, Sutton said he met with Mr. Johnson on Dec. 3, 2019 during which specific details of the alleged sexual harassment were disclosed to him.  However, Sutton said Johnson did not present any evidence supporting the details.  Sutton questioned why Mr. Johnson, a law enforcement officer, would had information on a sexual assault but not turn it over to proper authorities, or the district attorney, to obtain a warrant and place the case in the judicial system.  Sutton said it was inexcusable there were victims and they were not being properly supported after a traumatic experience.

Sutton continued, saying Johnson met with him again, this time on Jan. 1, 2020 and played a short audio of the alleged sexual harassment.  In response, Sutton said he has shared the information with the Superintendent so proper action can be taken, if proven to be true.  Sutton said Johnson has agreed to turn over the audio to Dr. Causby.

Sutton said it was time for the disruptions and distractions to end so the Board can focus on a safe educational learning environment for school students.

Sutton agreed to take a few questions from the media and the public in attendance.  However, Sutton, Sessoms and Zukowski walked away from the podium and retreated inside the courthouse when a resident began asking specific questions about Zukowski’s alleged conflict of interest and the sexual harassment claims.

Johnson Press Conference
Ronald Johnson was not in attendance at Sutton’s courthouse press conference, but immediately afterwards held his own press conference on the grounds of Smithfield Middle School.  Johnson said he stands by all of his claims.

Johnson says school leaders have failed to act in the past and have a history of going after whistleblowers.  Johnson said he would turn over his findings to the SBI or the Johnston County District Attorney.  When asked if he would also turn over his findings to the school board, he replied, “Why should I trust them now.”

Ronald Johnson (left) answers questions from the media during a Press Conference in the parking lot at Smithfield Middle School on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020. Photo

Mr. Johnson said the victims of the sexual harassment did not want to pursue charges, just left alone by the male.  He said Dr. Causby had video evidence from security cameras of the male following one of the female victims to her car. Johnson said Dr. Causby has had the video over a month and has not tried to contact the victim, even though the video clearly shows her identity.

“I’m thoroughly disappointed about the (Sutton) press conference. I was under the impression Todd wanted to work together. I hardly qualify attacking my integrity as working together, especially when I am telling the truth. Furthermore, I would never walk away from a citizen if they were posing questions,” Johnson said.

“I understand he’s upset but now I’m releasing documentation. He will have to explain his comments to the public. I sincerely wanted to avoid releasing this information but after the second time my integrity has been publicly questioned and attacked, I have no choice.  In the spirit of being transparent, I hope we can still work together and thank Terri for what she’s done over the past four months to help me.”

Johnson then released to members of the media a Nov. 2019 group text message reportedly sent by Chairman Sutton to all the board members. In the text Sutton says, “I am tired of us being the ones who take the blame for everything regarding the budget shortfall!!! I think we deserve answers from *** as to how this happened and why we were not notified of this issue before Dr. Causby got here. We were only told of a 5M shortfall!!! How did we get thru last year and all of a sudden we are staring at a HUGE deficit in our budget! It’s time to peel back the onion and get to the root of the problem and if that means people withheld information then we will have to deal with their poor decisions. I am tired of being looked at as we are incompetent!”

Johnson also released copies of more than a dozen emails sent from Zukowski in 2019 where she is reportedly soliciting Johnston County school educators to purchase Freckle software. In one email, Zukowski says, “It is a busy time of the year, but Freckle’s BOGO offer is a great savings! You only have until June 15, 2019 to take advantage of these great savings and help reduce SUMMER SLIDE.  Worried about budget? Don’t be. As a partner with Freckle we can offer you flexible billing so you can use your 2019-2020 budget if needed!”

Some of the emails list Zukowski as a Senior Account Executive with Freckle Education.  It also includes her phone number and encourages educators to call her or book a time “so we can find a plan that works for you.”

Sutton, however, in today’s press conference denied there was any conflict of interest.  On Monday, Zukowski declined to comment to JoCoReport on Johnson’s allegations of a possible conflict of interest. She also did not address those question today when specifically asked by a member of the public at the press conference.

District Attorney, SBI Respond
Prior to both press conferences being held, District Attorney Susan Doyle responded to our email request from earlier this week seeking a comment on Johnson’s video interview allegations.

“I do not think it would be appropriate to comment on Ronald’s interview.  I have not been presented with any evidence that crimes have been committed in order to justify a request for SBI involvement.  If I am presented with evidence of possible criminal activity, I will most certainly request an investigation.  I would like to think that if Ronald Johnson has evidence that crimes have been committed, his first order of business would be to present that to the District Attorney.  As a law enforcement officer, he knows that is the standard procedure,” Doyle said.

Thursday night, an SBI spokesperson confirmed they are not currently investigating.  “We are not investigating such claims.  With that said, we also do not have jurisdiction to initiate such an investigation.  We generally need a request from a local sheriff, chief or district attorney in order to conduct an investigation.  If the DA receives the evidence you refer to and requests an SBI investigation, we would then meet and discuss the allegations prior to initiating an investigation,” said Anjanette Grube, Public Information Director for the NC SBI.

School Board Candidate’s Attorney Hand Delivers Extensive Public Records Request
At the conclusion of Chairman Sutton’s conference, Smithfield attorney Jack O’Hale hand delivered a three page public records request to Sutton demanding a number of school records be turned over immediately. O’Hale said he was representing Kay Carroll, a candidate for the Johnston County Board of Education.  O’Hale’s letter said the request was made “in light of recent public disclosures, media reports and statements made by members of the Johnston County Board of Education.”

The public record request seeks information on a $16 million transfer of funds from Johnston County Schools to Johnston County Commissioners in 2010; minutes of board meetings and names of board members involved in the transfer of funds; copies of records pertaining to Cenergistic or any subsidiary and all financial transactions and contracts; copies of the audit reports from the last 10 years; copies of recent budgets; board meeting minutes; Freckle contracts and emails; interoffice notes and correspondence between finance director Art Stanley and any school board member in 2018 and 2019; and information on who authorized principals to deviate from board policy regarding curriculum and instruction in each school.

The attorney’s letter demands a response from Sutton within 10 days.

Citizen Calls For School Board Members To Resign
Former Town of Micro Mayor Jim Wiesner was at Sutton’s press conference.  Wiesner described himself as a “conservative concerned about wasteful taxpayer spending by the school board.” Wiesner was holding a sign during the press conference.  He said he wants see Sutton, Sessoms and Zukowski resign.

About 40 citizens attended the courthouse conference. Many of those in attendance said afterwards they believe the conflict between the board members is far from being over.  Some expressed disappointment Sutton did not call for an forensic audit or an independent external investigation.