Education

Chairman tells Johnston school board member to put up or shut up regarding alleged wrongdoing

Posted January 2, 2020 5:55 p.m. EST
Updated January 2, 2020 6:21 p.m. EST

— The chairman of the Johnston County Board of Education called Thursday for a board member to provide evidence of the financial misdeeds and sexual harassment he has alleged in recent weeks or stop making accusations so the school district can move forward.

Board member Ronald Johnson first alleged corruption in the district in a November column in The Johnston County Report news website, blaming improprieties for an $8 million budget shortfall. He reiterated and expanded on his claims in a video interview the site posted on Monday, alleging two female employees have been sexually harassed, that district financial officials lied to the school board and that a fellow board member has an ongoing conflict of interest because her employer does business with the district.

Board Chairman Todd Sutton blasted Johnson during a Thursday afternoon news conference for not sharing evidence to support his claims with other board members or Interim Superintendent James Causby.

"It is time for all the drama to cease and desist as it relates to the well-being of our children in Johnston County," Sutton said. "These distractions must stop. It is time for our children and their education to be the center of our attention and to eliminate all the self-serving behavior that has existed up to this point."

Sutton, who was flanked by board members Terri Sessoms and Tracie Zukowski, said an outside auditor found no problems with the district's finances in October. He said Johnson has presented no evidence of any financial corruption, and he said Johnson never requested a forensic audit, even though Johnson stated in his recent video interview that he has.

"When you say 'corrupt,' that gets to the bone of your body," Sutton said. "I don't have a corrupt bone in my body. I don't think any board member does. We're here, we were elected to do a job, and that's take care of the children of Johnston County."

After what has transpired, Johnson said he has trouble trusting the school system leaders. But he shared a text message with WRAL News that Sutton sent to board members in November saying it was time to "peel back the onion" regarding the deficit and suggesting district officials might have withheld information from the board.

"How did we go from being $5 million short in one month to $16 million short the next month if it is such a clean bill of health?" Johnson asked on Thursday.

He also handed over a stack of emails from Zukowski to local school employees about products from Freckle Education, the school software company where she's a sales executive.

"[The emails] solicit principals in our district where she is a sitting board member," Johnson said.

Zukowski said she couldn't comment on the emails.

Sutton noted during his news conference that Zukowski asked that her employer switch her off the Johnston County account before she was elected in 2018. At least one of the emails Johnson provided was dated last July.

Johnson is a Smithfield police officer, and Sutton said it's unconscionable for him to withhold evidence of possible sexual harassment from law enforcement or district administrators so a proper investigation can take place and any needed criminal charges or disciplinary action pursued.

Sutton said Johnson did share with him Wednesday a portion of an audio recording that does raise concern about possible harassment, and he said Johnson pledged to share the information with Causby, who had requested more information weeks ago.

"You hear a male subject loosening his clothing, saying. 'Don't get nervous. I am not taking anything off,'" Johnson said of the recording. "The female subject says, 'You are making me nervous.' You can hear the female subject hitting the male subject telling him to stop and no."

"If any of these allegations are true, I will stand behind [Johnson]," Sutton said. "But I want to see the evidence so we can move forward and start healing as a board."

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