Fight over secret recordings shows Johnston County school board in turmoil

Johnston County School Board courtesy of board's social media stream.

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  • In a YouTube video two candidates for Johnston County School Board call for a state audit of the system's finances.
  • Accusations of ethics violations, abusing student assignment system, and hiding federal COVID money promise a heated Sept 6 meeting.

The Johnston County school board voted 6-1 last week to censure and remove one of its members for what they say was his violation of the board’s code of ethics. Meantime that member, Ronald Johnson, accuses others on the school board of conspiring to hide millions in federal COVID relief money.

Johnson admits to recording discussions among board members on 10 occasions since January and did not tell any of the members that he had recorded them. However, the larger board also accuses him of recording closed-door sessions and “using the board member’s position on the Board for personal or partisan gain,” according to documents from the law firm Tharrington Smith, LLP, which was hired by the Johnston County school board to investigate Johnson.

The board’s investigation alleges that Johnson attempted to interfere in a student assignment involving two special education students. Documents claim Johnson had a dispute with a parent of the students, which led him to allegedly ask a principal to remove the students from a district school. The principal told the law firm that he did not take any action in response to Johnson’s request.

But the conflict on the school board goes even further. Johnson’s recordings allegedly uncovered wrongdoing of other board members, including a discussion about hiding taxpayer money. Johnson recorded a budget workshop meeting in March in which board members Lyn Andrews and Kay Carroll, along with Stephen Britt, the school district’s chief financial officer, allegedly discuss using federal COVID-19 Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief, ESSER, money.

Andrews discusses putting in a line item, while Carroll says if they don’t do that, the county commissioners are going to want their money back. Britt is heard saying, “So what we could do and how we were working to get you as close to that $35 million was to take $8 million out of ESSER and put it back in local, and that will keep fund balance floating about $23 million, and then that would give you another $8 million.”

Andrews said, “So you still got it, you just put it in a different place,” to which Carroll replied, “I don’t care how you word it. Let’s get it to that. … But hide your money.”

Board members accuse Johnson of secretly recording a portion of a May 31 closed-session meeting of the board involving discussion of an employee’s salary. The law firm’s findings say Johnson later went to the employee’s house and played the recording for the employee in question. The employee told a lawyer from the law firm that Johnson drove to their house and played the recording but didn’t say it was from the meeting. Johnson denied the allegations to the investigating law firm.

School board members say Johnson’s recordings mean he violated the board’s code of ethics, which states board members commit to “not making secret recordings, in any format, on school system property, at school- or Board-related events or meetings, or otherwise connected to the business of the Board or the Johnston County Public Schools.”

North Carolina is a one-party consent state, according to recording law, which normally only requires one party to give consent to recording a conversation.

Johnson, who is also a detective with the Smithfield Police Department, is on unpaid leave since July 13 as part of an internal investigation within the department.

Johnson gave the recording to school board candidates Kevin Donovan and Michelle Antoine. Donovan told the Johnston County Report that when he asked Johnson why he didn’t just release the recording himself, he said, “The people I thought I can trust, I can’t trust them anymore.”

The entire conflict went public in early August, when Donovan and Antoine made a YouTube video calling on N.C. Auditor Beth Wood to do a forensic audit of the school board’s financial records.

Dale Lands of Citizen Advocates for Accountable Government told Carolina Journal that while Wood could come in, it would be a huge undertaking because she would also have to audit the county commissioners’ financial records as well.

“I think the much clearer way, clearer path is to elect new people in November,” he said. “We would have a four-person conservative majority that is ready to open up these books and see what they look like.”

Lands would like to see 100% transparency in the school board’s financial statements. He also said that Johnson has no plans to resign and expects a huge turnout of support for him at the commissioners’ meeting on Sept. 6 and at the next school board meeting on Sept. 13.