Johnston County school board chairman for ‘all the drama to cease and desist’

Johnston County News

SMITHFIELD, N.C. (WNCN) – The chairman of the Johnston County Board of Education responded on Thursday to a series of allegations of mismanagement of the school system by saying, “It is time for all the drama to cease and desist.”

Chairman Todd Sutton held a press conference Thursday afternoon after another board member, Ronald Johnson, made several claims about the district’s financial issues, corruption and mishandling of sexual harassment claims.

“These distractions must stop,” said Sutton.

Interim Superintendent Dr. Jim Causby discovered last fall that the district faces a shortfall of nearly $9 million this fiscal year. He’s requested help from county commissioners to close the gap.

“We were not told about the deficit until Causby got here, indicating that information was misrepresented and withheld,” Johnson said.

Johnson claims Causby told him in October that the district’s finance officer “lied” to board members about the matter and even fabricated documents.

Causby denies saying that and said the finance officer’s work “has been appropriate and legal.” In an email to CBS 17, he wrote, “I will not tolerate him being slandered by anyone.”

Sutton said he was at the same October meeting, and that Causby did not say anything about employees lying about the district’s finances.

“At no time has anything been brought to our attention with respect to misappropriation or cover-up on the part of any employee,” Sutton said. He also said previous audits of the school system did not uncover issues of mismanagement.

“The auditors gave the school system a clean bill of health,” he said.

Johnson replied, “If it’s such a clean bill of health, why the jump in the deficit?”

Causby has attributed the shortfall to the school system’s rapid growth and a lack of federal funding for some student programs.

Conflict of Interest Claims

Johnson criticized another board member, Tracie Zukowski, claiming she used her role as a board member to try to sell her employer’s products to the school system.

Johnson gave CBS 17 a series of emails that appear to be sent from her work account with Freckle Education to various JCPS employees, including principals.

Zukowski attended Thursday’s press conference but did not speak about the issue. However, Sutton did.

“This has been reconfirmed as recently as Dec. 3 in an email from Renaissance Learning to our board attorney, both of which confirmed that there was no conflict of interest,” he said.

After obtaining copies of the emails, CBS 17 contacted Zukowski for more information.

She said when she first ran for the school board she asked her employer to have any work in Johnston County assigned to someone else.

When asked why emails still went out from her account to JCPS employees after she got elected to the board, she declined to comment further, referring CBS 17 to the earlier press conference.

CBS 17 has requested a copy of the Dec. 3 email Sutton referenced.

Sexual Harassment Claims

Johnson also has accused school leaders of failing to act on a sexual harassment claim involving a school system employee.

Sutton said he first heard about the situation on Dec. 3 and reached out to District Attorney Susan Doyle about the matter.

After discussing it, he said he received a text message from her on Dec. 10 that no one had brought any evidence to her since that initial meeting. She told him no investigation could start without evidence.

On Jan. 1, Sutton said he met with Johnson who played a partial audio recording. Sutton said it concerned him enough that he told Johnson to turn the recording over to the superintendent.

“Withholding all of this evidence does not afford the school system the opportunity to do what is right,” Sutton said.

Johnson said one woman who had been harassed did not want to pursue criminal charges but wanted the harassment to stop.

When CBS 17 asked Johnson why he hadn’t turned the recording over to anyone, he said the school system has a history of retaliating against employees.

Johnson said he previously met with the superintendent about the issue in November.

“And, he had the opportunity to act on information he already had. However, he has not acted on the information that he already had, and I don’t want to expose these victims any more if he’s not going to act on what he already has,” said Johnson.

Causby confirmed to CBS 17 that Johnson had come to him “on several occasions with accusations about two school system employees.”

Causby said he has asked Johnson to turn give him video and audio recordings but he’s refused to do that.

In a meeting on Nov. 20, Causby said he also asked Johnson to encourage the two victims to come forward and reiterated his request to share the evidence he had.

Causby said Johnson declined.

“I will not have my integrity questioned in this matter and I cannot take action against someone for sexual harassment when there has been no evidence presented. Everyone who knows me knows that I will objectively deal with any such allegations,” Causby wrote. 

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