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Group protests schools’ comment rules

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SMITHFIELD — The Johnston County Education Summit held an Aug. 13 press conference to discuss its efforts to end what the group calls Johnston County Public Schools’ marginalization of African American professionals and the school board’s restrictive public comment rules.

Roughly 30 people attended the meeting held at St. Peter’s Church of Christ, including a school system employee dispatched by the central office to record the meeting.

“We, the members of the Johnston County Education Summit, find the public comment policy and practice of the Johnston County school board prohibits full transparency at the very least and tramples free speech at most,” said Reginald Holley, who addressed the school board May 14.

Board of Education Chairman Mike Wooten prevented Holley from reading his prepared remarks in full. Holley’s message was censored under board policies that First Amendment and open government attorneys say are likely unconstitutional.

Holley noted that people who wish to address the school board are required to submit their remarks in writing 48 hours before a scheduled meeting.

“Over the past five months, summit members have been attending school board meetings and during those meetings, we have exercised our right as taxpaying citizens to make statements relevant to the ongoing system of marginalization of African American professionals by Johnston County schools,” said Holley. “However, given the board’s public comment policy, we have been cut short in our capacity to be fully heard as our original statements have been edited, causing the summit to read redacted versions.”

“As members of the summit, we have experienced the board informing us of its approval to speak as late as the Tuesday morning of the meeting,” Holley continued. “While we have chosen to abide by the rules of the board so we would at least have the opportunity to state our concerns, we find that operating under the board’s policy no longer tenable.”

Holley said the group’s members are Johnston County residents who care about students’ welfare and the school system’s success but haven’t been allowed to share their full range of concerns with the school board.

“We are disturbed by this,” he said. “As a group of primarily African Americans, we are especially troubled at the prospects of censorship and not having the opportunity to be fully heard because of our county’s tradition of punitive measures taken against African Americans who dared to exercise their right to free speech.”

Wooten initially told Holley he couldn’t read his full statement because it included school system employees’ names, which Wooten said broke a rule against discussing personnel matters during time reserved for public comment. Another Johnston County Education Summit member was permitted to read an unedited copy of the same statement the following month. Wooten then said Holley’s remarks had been truncated because they differed from a previous draft that had been submitted to the board.

Johnston County Board of Education attorney Jimmy Lawrence said he’s reviewing the public comment policy for possible revisions. The school board in neighboring Wilson County rescinded a rule barring discussion of personnel matters last year on the advice of its attorney after The Wilson Times raised First Amendment concerns.

Holley said the public deserves to be fully aware of the school district’s successes as well as where the district is falling short.

Robert O’Neal said the press conference was held so Johnston County Education Summit members could speak freely without censorship.

“We are a group of concerned citizens that believe the Johnston County school system needs to be placed under the spotlight for its marginalization of African American professionals,” said O’Neal.

O’Neal questioned the Johnston County Public Schools Equity Committee, a panel that’s been in place for two years.

“The results of the equity committee are no black principals at traditional high schools,” said O’Neal. “Dee Edmundson, a celebrated African American principal at a Johnston County school, was marginalized and given a subordinate position in human capital — you may know it as human resources. Only four African Americans serve in the superintendent’s 84-member administration.

“In our estimation, Superintendent (Ross) Renfrow appears to be spinning his wheels and making no traction toward ending marginalization of African American professionals,” said O’Neal. “It is imperative that the Johnston County Education Summit remain adamant in its appeal to the Board of Education to help end this culture of marginalization and to make a strong commitment to the growth, retention and recruitment of African American professionals at all levels of our education system.”

After the news conference, O’Neal sent a letter to the school board chairman questioning the presence of an uninvited school system employee who videotaped the meeting.

O’Neal asked whether the school district’s rules allow the use of its employees to conduct “surveillance” on stakeholder groups that are critical of district policy.

“If so, please provide the summit a copy of said policy, and if not, please explain why school personnel and resources were dispatched to video-record a non-school-related function,” O’Neal wrote. “...Given our school’s budget challenges, the use of school resources to monitor an outside school activity such as previously referenced seems hardly a good use of tax dollars otherwise intended for school-sanctioned activities. Mr. Chairman, the Johnston County Education Summit anticipates your response.”

Wooten said Johnston County Public Schools officials believed they would be welcome at the meeting.

“We value the work of the Education Summit. I certainly thought we were to be there,” said Wooten. “If we were not, then the sincere apology would come from me who wanted to be sure that we continue the positive, open and honest relationship we enjoy with the members of the Education Summit.”

O’Neal said he wanted to keep the door open for further dialogue with Wooten.

“Meanwhile, the summit looks forward to working with you to end ongoing marginalization of African American professionals in the Johnston County school system,” O’Neal said.