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School board prays for unity

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SMITHFIELD — A school board in turmoil sought last week to forge a united front.

“Now is the time for us to eliminate any and all issues,” said Todd Sutton, chairman of a board that has had to confront one member’s suspicions of wrongdoing in the schools, including sexual harassment. It’s time, he added, to “put all of our emotions aside and do what’s right for our students.”

Sutton called on the board to focus on the school system’s budget, it’s dire financial straits, underpeforming schools, the search for a superintendent and employee safety, perhaps a nod to evidence of sexual harassment in the schools.

“In order for the public to see that we can do they job they put us in office to do, we must start acting like it,” Sutton said. “This is directed to all of us.”

But Sutton appeared to aim some of his remarks at board member Ronald Johnson, who has used the news outlet to air his allegations of wrongdoing.

“Please give me the courtesy of being the voice as chairman,” Sutton said. “Most of you elected me as chairman, I hope to gain the confidence of the others. I am simply asking for your help in pulling the plow in the same direction for the sake of our school system.”

For his part, Johnson acknowledged that some see him as a disruptive force. After welcoming new interim superintendent Ben Williams, Johnson turned to the audience and said, “I know a lot of you are probably concerned, you know, ‘What is Ronald going to do to this guy?’”

They needn’t worry, Johnson told his listeners. “I’m here to say Dr. Williams has my full support, I’m in his corner, and we will be pushing in the same direction,” he said.

“To all my supporters, I have a message,” Johnson added. “There’s a time to stand tall, but there’s also a time to stand together. And your board of education will stand together, we will do what’s right, and we will focus on three things.”
Those three things, he said, are mutuality, intolerance of ineffective humanity and civil aspiration.

“Mutuality means what’s good for one is good for all,” Johnson said, acknowledging the principals in the audience. “And when I say that, I don’t mean what’s good for Ronald Johnson. I don’t mean what’s good for Todd Sutton. I mean what’s good for that elementary school kid walking in your building, what’s good for that high school student getting in their car driving to your school and that middle school student suiting up for an athletic event.”

Johnson wasn’t specific, but “ineffective humanity” appeared to refer, at least in part, to allegations of sexual harassment in the schools. “Whether it’s central office or a kindergarten classroom, this board of education will not tolerate ineffective humanity towards others,” he said.

Turning to civil aspiration, Johnson said all board members will aspire to do the right thing. “How we got here is how we got here,” he said. “We were all pushing in different directions. Now we’re pulling together.”

Sutton promised teamwork, hard work, relentless determination, integrity, vision and an entrepreneurial spirit as the board moves forward. The board “is one team with one goal,” he said. “No one will outwork us if we are in unison. We will not stop until we have won, and we will have unwavering conviction.”

“We will say what we mean. We will do what we say,” Sutton added. “We will always think big for Johnston County Public Schools. We will always act like owners of the system.”

“There is a way out of the current turmoil we are facing,” he said.

Sutton then called on the board to approve a wellness audit of the school system’s spending, and he noted that the board had retained former superintendent Ed Croom as a nonpaid financial consultant. Finally, Sutton said the board must “focus on the wellbeing of any and all employees regarding harassment or any other issue that cannot and will not be tolerated in the workplace.”

“We are going to pull the plow in the same direction,” he said.

April Lee, a teacher and president of the Johnston County Association of Educators, was one of two people who spoke during the public-comments part of last week’s meeting. “It has been heartbreaking to watch what has been happening among our school board,” she said. “I do not remember there ever being a time when our board was so fractured and our district being the headline for so many negative things.”

“But the positives far outweigh the negatives here in Johnston County,” Lee said. “We have the best educators, we have the best support staff around. They provide for our kids every day a way to school, a hot meal, a smile, a hug, some paper, a pencil, a tissue, encouraging words.”

Josiah Edwards also spoke. He had appeared before the board a decade earlier to receive an award. “We’ve never seen this much darkness, this much hurt and pain going on in our school system,” Edwards said. “I just want to be encouraging. We can get through this. It doesn’t matter what happened. What matters is what’s about to happen. And it’s starting now. And I’ve been praying for all of y’all.”

At one point in last week’s meeting, the board members joined hands in prayer.

“Lord, we ask right now that you unify this board, you strengthen our school system, you take Satan out of our county,” Sutton prayed. “Lord, we ask that you keep our students safe. Our parents, our teachers and every employee that (enters) the doors of Johnston County Public Schools, we lift them up to you right now. But more importantly, Lord, we lift each of us up to you for us do your work and not ours.”