Johnston County Board
of Education


report from Feb. 11 meeting

Board members present:
Chairman Todd Sutton,
Teresa Grant, Ronald Johnson, Terri Sessoms,
Peggy Smith,
Mike Wooten, Tracie Zukowski
Absent: None


CONSULTANTS CONSIDERED FOR "WELLNESS AUDIT"

Brian Vetrano, the school system's chief of human resources and financial services, told the board a meeting would be held "later this week" with representatives of School Efficiency Consultants about conducting a "wellness audit" of Johnston County Public Schools. Those consultants include a number
of former administrative leaders of North Carolina public schools who are "highly respected," Mr. Vetrano said. (According to its website, School Efficiency Consultants operates under the umbrella of Rives and Associates, an accounting company with offices in Raleigh, Charlotte, and Lexington.) Exactly what a "wellness audit" entails was not made clear at Tuesday's meeting. It's not an audit of personal physical health; rather, it's an audit of an organization's financial operations.


CONTRACT WITH CENERGISTICS UNDER REVIEW

Apparently in response to Kay Carroll's recent questioning of the school system's contract with the energy-management company known as Cenergistics, Board Chairman Todd Sutton noted that the contract dates back to 2016 and is up for renewal next January. "It's an appropriate time for us to review this contract, basically to see if there's any cost savings," he said. Referring to the system's own maintenance staff and its role in energy management, he asked: "Can we conduct this (work) on our own?" He instructed Superintendent Ben Williams to "get feedback from our teachers and our schools" about "how to move forward with this Cenergistics contract." Board member Terri Sessoms said several of the system's maintenance employees "have expressed concerns" about the current setup.


EXPENSE FOR "LEGAL SERVICES" UNDER SCRUTINY

Chairman Sutton named board members Peggy Smith, Terri Sessoms, Teresa Grant, and Ronald Johnson to serve as a committee to explore cost-saving options for legal services provided to the school system. Mike Wooten, chair of the board's Finance Committee, said his group has been looking "in house" to see "where we can consolidate jobs" and found the annual expense for legal services to be "a big number." One option to consider, he noted, is employment of a full-time staff attorney in place of present arrangements with Smithfield attorney Jimmy Lawrence and the Raleigh law firm of Tharrington Smith to provide those services. Recent school budgets have allocated $360,000 legal annually for  services, but the amount spent in fiscal 2018-19 totaled $492,497.75, according to the school board's proposed budget for 2019-20 that was presented last spring.


NEW POLICY ON BOARD'S HANDLING OF COMPLAINTS

The board voted 6-1 to adopt a new policy entitled "Role of Board Members in Handling Complaints" that concludes with this statement: "Individual Board members shall and will refrain from taking individual action with regard to such complaints other than referring them to the proper administrative employee (of the school system)." The dissenting vote was cast without comment by Ronald Johnson, who drew fellow board members' ire after he made public a number of allegations of misconduct within the school system's administration that were brought to his attention by school employees.
The new policy in full is posted on the school system's website>


PROPOSED POLICIES ON HARASSMENT AND BULLYING


The board received a revised school-system policy entitled "Prohibition of Discrimination, Harassment and Bullying" and a new policy on "Procedures for Handling Discrimination, Harassment and Bullying." Area Assistant Superintendent David Pearce said both are based on model policies provided by the N.C. School Boards Association. One of the changes prohibits such behavior "at any time or place, including electronically, when the behavior has a direct and immediate effect on maintaining order and discipline on school property" (newly added wording in italics). The new "Procedures" policy makes reporting of abuse "mandatory" and allows for anonymous reporting of incidents, with the added clause that "formal disciplinary action may not be taken solely on the basis of an anonymous report." Both policies are scheduled for approval at the school board's March 10 meeting.
View the "Prohibition" policy in full>
View the "Procedures" policy in full>


PASTOR SAYS CENTRAL OFFICE "A WORLD UNTO ITSELF"

Tim Stevens, pastor of Micro First Baptist Church and an owner/operator of Williamsburg Woodcraft, was the only citizen to speak during the "Public Comment" portion of Tuesday's meeting. He said "the root" of "major problems" facing Johnston's schools is "that the people on this board and many of the people who work in the Central Office are, at times, completely out of touch with reality." Calling the Central Office "a little world unto itself," Rev. Stevens urged the board to "put a hold" on its search for a new superintendent and seek out "a business development consultant" whose background is "working in troubled large corporations" to come in and "examine everything you're doing." Wondering how many school-system employees "never come into contact with a student," he urged the board "to reduce the number of people who work in this Central Office and come back down to earth."
MORE about that on the OBSERVATIONS page>


RESTRICTION ON WHO SPEAKS TO THE MEDIA?

Board member Teresa Grant questioned a provision in a proposed "Board of Education Operational Agreement" that names the "chairperson or designee" as the board's "spokesperson to the media and community regarding official District business." What happens in cases of split votes on specific matters before the board? Ms. Grant asked. "The person who votes separately is going to be passionate about the way they voted and want to share that as well," she said. Board member Ronald Johnson agreed. "All seven of us should be able to speak," he said. "From here on out if someone asks me what I think I'm not going to shy away from telling them." Added board member Terri Sessoms: "We should not stifle another person's voice on this board because all ideas and all perspectives are valuable." However, she continued, "whatever the majority does vote on we should all support that.... If we walk out of here split, it splits our community." As a result of Tuesday's discussion, the proposed agreement will go back to committee for further review.


WOOTEN TO HELP SHAPE LEGISLATIVE AGENDA

Chairman Sutton asked board member Wooten to serve as Johnston's delegate on the Legislative Committee of the N.C. School Boards Association. That committee is tasked with developing a list of issues the association will take to the N.C. General Assembly during its next "long session" in 2021.



STUDENT REASSIGNMENTS APPROVED AND DENIED

As part of its "consent agenda" requiring no discussion, the board approved and denied several requests for reassignment of students to schools outside the attendance districts where they reside. This month just 16 transfer requests were approved and 15 denied, mostly because of "capped" schools with no room for additional students. Those low numbers prompted board member Terri Sessoms to note that transfer requests have "slowed down drastically" in recent months. "In the past many, many students were being reassigned," she said.
View this month's list of APPROVALS>
View the list of DENIALS>



APPOINTMENTS TO SMITHFIELD-SELMA HIGH'S COUNCIL

The board appointed
reappointed Frank Creech and Billy Lassiter and appointed as new members Van Boothe, Shamona Foreman, and Kathleen Stuckey to the Smithfield-Selma High School Advisory Council. Those terms continue through June 2022.


NEW PRINT-SHOP CONTRACT COSTS LESS

The board approved a four-year contract with CEI of Raleigh to provide copying equipment for the school system's Print Shop at an annual cost of $47,000. That price is $13,573 a year less than what was paid the previous vendor, noted Dolores Gill, the school system's chief of staff and communication.


SCHOOL-BASED MENTAL-HEALTH SERVICES

The board approved contracts with two mental-health service providers --- easterseals UCP and Hope Services, LLC --- to "set up shop" in four of Johnston's schools starting next month: West Smithfield Elementary, Archer Lodge Middle, and Cleveland and South Johnston high schools. The "partnership" will also be allowed for the school system's "Choice Plus" program. A similar arrangement is already in place for basic health services at Smithfield-Selma High School.


REVISED SCHOOL HOURS TO SAVE BUSING COSTS?

The board received a "draft" proposal to make school starting times "consistent" and "more coordinated" throughout Johnston County as part of an effort to cut busing costs. High-school bell times would be 7:15 and 2:15 (with the exception of Princeton where students in all grades are on the same bus schedule). Middle-school bell times would be 8:05 and 3:05 and elementary-school times 8:55 and 3:55 (with the exception of Benson, Four Oaks, and Meadow). Under this proposal, schools in the North Johnston Attendance area could go to a "3-tier bus schedule," noted Dolores Gill, the school system's chief of staff and communication. A final proposal regarding next year's bus schedules could come back before the board for approval at its March 10 meeting, Ms. Gill said.


WOOTEN TO HELP SHAPE LEGISLATIVE AGENDA

Chairman Sutton asked board member Wooten to serve as Johnston's delegate on the Legislative Committee of the N.C. School Boards Association. That committee is tasked with developing a list of issues the association will take to the N.C. General Assembly during its next "long session" in 2021.


CLOSED SESSIONS HELD ON PERSONNEL MATTERS

The board met in closed session to discuss personnel matters twice during Tuesday's monthly meeting --- first, at 4 p.m. prior to the 5 p.m. start of the open session; later, starting at 9:20 p.m. at the conclusion of
the open session. No action has been reported as a result of either of the closed sessions.


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