Local News Could Have Saved Johnston County Public Schools

Johnston County Public Schools’ Logo

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you haven’t been keeping up with all the drama that is Johnston County Public Schools these days. And honestly, I can’t blame you. It’s hard to even know where to begin when it comes to my former school district.

A no good, very bad year for Johnston County Public Schools

So, let’s start from the beginning. It all started with an athletic scandal at Clayton High School. School district leaders initially accused Clayton of fixing student-athletes’ grades. This resulted in 13 seniors graduating in 2019 who had not met the requirements to do so. That led to the football coach resigning and the Principal being forcibly transferred.

This is where the drama kicks in. Clayton football coach Hunter Jenks wrote a resignation letter on August 20th. In it, he said Superintendent Dr. Ross Renfrow assured him there was no evidence of wrongdoing by the school’s football team. Jenks resigned simply because he wanted out and left for a new position in another county. Dr. Bennett Jones, the principal, filled not one but two grievances with the school district after his transfer. He declared he was removed without evidence of any wrongdoing.

The Clayton community rallied and protested the removal of their beloved principal. And a week later in a special closed-door meeting of the board of education, Renfrow resigned.

In September, interim Superintendent Dr. Jim Causby announced six of the original 13 seniors did not receive unearned diplomas. And in October, Jones was returned to Clayton High School as principal. The district also reported no unearned diplomas were handed out after all.

So, a happy ending to a bizarre story? Well no. Turns out it was just starting.

One month after Jones returned to his former post, board member Ronald Johnson wrote a blistering Op-Ed. In it, he accused the school district of widespread corruption and incompetence. Among many charges, he accused Dr. Renfrow of planning to misrepresent financial matters to the public. Johnson also accused a high-ranking school official and board member of shaking down both Jones and Jenks.

Johnson alleges Jones was offered to be the next Superintendent of the school district and Jenks was offered a position as an Assistant Principal. Jones and Jenks would be promoted if they publicly attacked Johnson. He then goes on to say after he confronted the pair who allegedly shook down Jones and Jenks the pair retaliated by attempting to have him arrested.

It’s here I should point out Johnson is a detective with the Smithfield, NC Police Department.

A week after Johnson’s Op-Ed dropped, the school district announced it was facing a nearly $9 Million deficit. Then chairman of the board of education, Mike Wooten, said population growth and rising costs led to the budget crisis.

But that’s not how Johnson saw it. He believed corruption and mismanagement of funds was to blame for the school’s deficit. He further lent more details to his allegations in another Op-Ed. Johnson additionally alleged the school district was conducting a mole hunt. He said their aim was to find the whistleblowers within the school district providing him with information. Johnson then went on to state his wish for a forensic audit of the school system’s finances.

Dr. Causby shortly released a statement in response to Johnson’s continued allegations. In it, he denied any wrongdoing by staff or board members and said he refused to tolerate slander. Dueling press conferences soon followed with both sides digging in. Johnson demanded answers. Newly elected board chairman Todd Sutton denied wrongdoing by the district. Four days later, board member Teresa Grant went on record requesting a forensic audit of the school system’s books.

Shorty, after Grant signaled her support for the audit, interim Superintendent Dr. Jim Causby abruptly resigned on January 10th. He previously intended to lead the district until the end of the school year. In his resignation letter, he thanked the majority of the board members for their support. He omitted Johnson’s and Grant’s names from the list.

Yet another interim Superintendent was shortly named. The county commissioners voted to bail out the school system. And since then, Sutton and former board chairman, and current candidate for a seat on the board, Kay Carroll have been battling it out. They’ve spent most of February trading blame and accusations for why the district is in the shape it’s in today.

The state of local journalism

This year-long saga didn’t have to exist. In fact, I’d counter most of the problems facing Johnston County Public Schools are due to the lack of quality journalism in the county.

Johnston County isn’t a news desert as other communities in our state are. There are several newspapers and media outlets in the county. But, many of these are shells of what they once were or operate with the thinnest of editorial staff.

I’ve had first-hand experience with the lack of quality journalism. The summer before my junior year of college I actually worked for Johnston County Public Schools. I worked as a public information intern in the central office’s communications department. One of my main responsibilities there was writing press releases. When quality journalism exists, press releases serve as the basis of a story written by a reporter, not the story itself. Most of the time, my press releases were run in full, not a single word changed. This, to me, was a clear sign most newsrooms didn’t have resources to cover the school system.

Local matters

One investigative journalist could have prevented the finger-pointing and drama engulfing the district. The UNC community recently learned how much impact a strong journalism outlet can make. The Daily Tar Heel has spent the last few weeks detailing the behind-the-scenes dealing leading up to the now-vacated Silent Sam settlement. The DTH has also uncovered possible state tax, federal tax, and campaign finance violations committed by one of the parties of the settlement.

A dedicated journalist could have provided clarity in Johnston County as reporters at the Daily Tar Heel have in the Silent Sam case. Instead, Johnston County faces dueling statements by the factions involved in the drama. No strong, independent voice sorting through the mess has emerged.

This is why local journalism matters. Having a strong, trusted news source in Johnston County could have prevented many of the problems we’re seeing today. Being the watchdog of local government is one of the core values of journalism. A healthy press would have sniffed out some of the problems now airing out in a very public, very messy process. After years of going unwatched, the district seems to have everyone’s attention now – for all the wrong reasons.