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School board chairman responds to allegations

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SMITHFIELD — At a news conference on Thursday, Johnston school board Chairman Todd Sutton said fellow board member Ronald Johnson had shown him evidence of sexual harassment and assault in the schools.

“Mr. Johnson partially shared with me some audio recordings of evidence with respect to one victim concerning sexual harassment and sexual assault,” Sutton said, standing at a lectern outside the Johnston County Courthouse. “Because of this and the level of concern that this raises, I asked Mr. Johnson to share this information with the superintendent so that proper action can be taken ... if, in fact, it is found to be true.”

Sutton said Johnson had agreed to share the audio recording with interim Superintendent Jim Causby. “I assure you that as chairman of the board of education, along with the rest of the board members, we intend to see this to completion,” he said.

But that acknowledgment of apparent evidence of sexual harassment was the only concession Sutton made to Johnson on Thursday. He otherwise used the news conference to rebut Johnson’s claims of wrongdoing in the schools.

In a column and video for the jocoreport.com website, Johnson has said he wants a law enforcement agency to investigate possible corruption and deception in the school system’s finances.

Sutton rejected any suggestion that wrongdoing created the schools’ budget shortfall. “That is totally untrue,” he said. 

The board chairman pointed to the most recent audit of the school system’s books. “At the conclusion of this audit, the auditors gave the school system a clean bill of health as it relates to the financial stability of the school system’s money,” Sutton said.

Furthermore, no one has shown the school board evidence of financial wrongdoing, Sutton said. “At no time has anything been brought to our attention with respect to misappropriation or cover-up on the part of any employee of the Johnston County Public Schools,” he said.

In that video interview with jocoreport.com, Johnson said Causby had told him, Sutton and fellow board member Teresa Grant that the school system’s finance officer had lied about the schools’ finances.

Grant did not attend Thursday’s news conference.

“After speaking with her, she has no recollection of Dr. Causby making that statement, nor do I,” Sutton said.

Sutton added that at the board’s Dec. 10 meeting, board member Terri Sessoms told Johnson that if he had evidence of financial wrongdoing, he should present it. “I can assure you that the rest of the board concurs with Ms. Sessoms’ recommendation and advice,” Sutton said.

Johnson, a Smithfield police officer, has said that two female employees of the school system have come to him with evidence of sexual harassment and assault.

Sutton wondered why Johnson had not taken that evidence before a magistrate or the district attorney to obtain arrest warrants. “This to me is inexcusable,” he said. “Withholding all of the evidence does not afford the school system the opportunity to do what is right for its employees.”  

Finally, Sutton rebutted Johnson’s claim that board member Tracie Zukowski had used her position on the board to peddle software for her employer, Renaissance Learning. “Mrs. Zukowski informed her company of the possibility of serving on the board of education, at which time she requested Johnston County be assigned to another representative,” Sutton said. “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.”

Sutton said Johnson’s public allegations of wrongdoing were making it hard for the schools to do their job. “It is time for all the drama to cease and desist,” he said.

Johnston schools are supposed to be giving children the best education possible, Sutton said. “We cannot accomplish this within the environment that has existed over the last several months,” he said. “These distractions must stop.”

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