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Our Opinion: Can Causby help fix school board’s censorship rules?

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Two weeks ago, Interim Superintendent Jim Causby blew the whistle on the school board that hired him for meddling in his predecessor’s investigation into a Clayton High School football player’s academic eligibility.

If the Johnston County Board of Education overstepped its bounds there, what are the chances that our elected school board members are serial micromanagers?

Causby’s comments came during a Sept. 17 parents’ meeting at Clayton High to update stakeholders on numerous issues roiling the school, from the claim that a football player’s grade was changed to keep him on the field — unsubstantiated, Causby stressed — to popular former principal Bennett Jones’ appeal of his transfer to a central office job.

During the meeting, Causby said school board members had more involvement in the grade-changing probe than was appropriate.

“There’s a clear role in state law between the Board of Education and the superintendent,” Causby said. “The board’s role is governance, setting policy, adopting budgets, that’s their role. But when they come across something, they’re supposed to refer it to the proper authority. It’s a step-by-step process and if you get out of that step-by-step, then you have issues.”

Causby said he discussed the matter with board members and explained their roles. He also said their participation stemmed from genuine concern, not a desire to get in the way.

We surmise the Board of Education will heed Causby’s caution. Our interim superintendent is among the most knowledgeable and well respected school administrators in North Carolina. Johnston County is lucky to have someone of Causby’s caliber leading its school system.

There’s another pressing matter before the school board that calls for Causby’s sage advice.

On Oct. 10, the Board of Education is scheduled to vote on a public comment policy that violates the First Amendment. The draft policy doubles down on a current rule that censors speakers who discuss school staff members’ performance.

Chairman Mike Wooten and Vice Chairwoman Peggy Smith have defended the rule by invoking North Carolina’s employee records privacy law. Parents and community members speaking at the podium don’t have access to JCPS personnel files and couldn’t disclose their contents even if they wanted to. The employee privacy law clearly does not apply to members of the general public.

We’ve explained that to the school board repeatedly. Board members either don’t understand or don’t care. We’ve also corresponded with Jimmy Lawrence, the Board of Education’s lawyer, and explained that censoring speakers at the podium for an arbitrary reason like uttering an employee’s name is unconstitutional.

We expected Lawrence to strike the problematic rule, but the new public comment policy actually manages to make it worse. The draft document is so hostile to free speech that it’s difficult to believe an attorney wrote it. Given the school board’s tendency to micromanage, what if Lawrence simply produced the policy his clients demanded, contrary to sound legal advice?

Enter Superintendent Causby. We’re confident he understands the difference between a government official releasing confidential personnel records and a parent critiquing a principal’s performance from the podium. Perhaps he can explain it to the Johnston County Board of Education in a way its members will grasp.

We asked Causby to review the public comment policy and discuss it with the board. Causby indicated he’d do just that. Board members appear to hold his recommendations in high regard. If he can dissuade these elected officials from continuing on a collision course with the Constitution, he’ll have earned Johnston County’s sincere gratitude.

There’s still time to register your concerns about school board censorship ahead of next week’s meeting. Call, write and email your representatives and tell them the free speech taught in our schools’ classrooms must be respected in the JCPS boardroom.

CONTACT YOUR SCHOOL BOARD

• Chairman Mike Wooten, 224 Cedar Springs Drive, Princeton, NC, 27569, 919-934-6032, ext. 7371, pwooten883@aol.com.

• Vice Chairwoman Peggy Smith, 202 Stancil Road, Angier, NC, 27501, 919-934-6032, ext. 7372, psmith@campbell.edu.

• Teresa Grant, 8804 Crestwood Court, Garner, NC, 27529, 919-934-6032, ext. 7373, teresagrant@johnston.k12.nc.us.

• Ronald Johnson, 423 Westminster Drive, Clayton, NC 27520, 919-934-6032, ext. 7374, ronjon1983@msn.com.

• Terri Sessoms, P.O. Box 449, Smithfield, NC 27577, 919-934-6032, ext. 7375, terrisessoms@johnston.k12.nc.us.

• Todd Sutton, 10298 Old Beulah Road, Kenly, NC 27524, 919-934-6032, ext. 7376, toddsutton@johnston.k12.nc.us.

• Tracie Zukowski, 180 Running Springs Court, Clayton, NC 27527, 919-934-6032, ext. 7377, traciezukowski@johnston.k12.nc.us.

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