Johnston County school board issues ultimatum to member: either resign or face removal

The Johnston County school board is demanding that one of its members resign or they’ll ask the District Attorney to remove him from office based on allegations of ethics violations.

The school board voted 6-1 on Wednesday to censure Ronald Johnson, accusing him of violating the board’s ethics policy by secretly recording conversations and trying to influence a principal’s student assignment decision.

The board said that if Johnson doesn’t resign by noon Friday they’ll request Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle to begin proceedings to remove him from his seat. School board Vice Chairwoman Terri Sessoms said potential reasons for removing Johnson could include being a liability to the board and breaking the public’s trust.

“You have abused the trust of the people who voted for you, and that is a shame because that trust that you have broken by violating the board of ethics has cost our children,” Sessoms said. “It has cost our children in time. It has cost our children in legal fees. It has cost our children in morale.”

Johnson repeatedly called the charges a “witch hunt” on Wednesday. He accused the board of trying to circumvent the will of voters who re-elected him to the school board in 2020 to a four-year term.

Johnston County school board member Ronald Johnson speaks out on Aug. 24, 2022 against the board’s resolution to censure him and request that he resign from office.
Johnston County school board member Ronald Johnson speaks out on Aug. 24, 2022 against the board’s resolution to censure him and request that he resign from office.

“This is outrageous,” Johnson said. “This is in strict conflict with what the people of this county said they wanted less than a year-and-a-half ago.”

Johnson is also a detective in the Smithfield Police Department who was initially placed on leave on July 5 as part of an internal investigation. That was switched to unpaid leave on July 13. Smithfield Police declined to give any additional information Thursday.

When news of the police investigation initially surfaced, Johnson said he would resign from the school board. But Johnson later said he would stay on the board “as long as I possibly can.”

Accused of ethics violations

The censure resolution is based on an investigation by the law firm of Tharrington Smith, the board’s attorney, into two allegations.

Johnson is accused of secretly recording a portion of a May 31 closed-session board discussion and sharing the information with an employee whose salary was being discussed. In the course of the investigation, Tharrington Smith says Johnson admitted to having secretly taped board members’ conversations on 10 occasions.

Johnson is accused of abusing his power by trying to interfere in the assignment of two special-education students. Johnson is accused of asking a principal to reject the request because the parent had “turned on him.”

North Carolina is a single-party consent state, so normally both parties don’t need to give permission for a conversation to be recorded.

But the board’s code of ethics policy requires board members to commit to “not make 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 Johnson County Public Schools.”

The resolution says that the “weight of the evidence” supports the allegations.

Johnson initially met with Tharrington Smith before refusing to cooperate. He accused the board of using hearsay evidence to target him.

“The greater weight will be given to information you have because again I refused to participate in this witch hunt,” Johnson said.

Secret recordings questioned

Johnson’s secret recordings were a sore spot among his colleagues. Johnson provided at least one of the conversations to school board candidates Michelle Antoine and Kevin Donovan, who posted part of it online.

“If everything we say is focused on students, we shouldn’t be concerned about what’s being taped,” Johnson said.

But school board Chairman Todd Sutton asked Johnson why he had to tape the conversations then. Johnson answered that was because if he asserts that something happened that people will say it did not.

“Mr. Johnson, I don’t need to go around taping anybody,” Sutton said. “You probably have archives of tapes of everybody in this room. But that’s OK. You admitted that you’ve recorded us on 10 different occasions.”

Johnson has called the charges against him a case of “whistleblower blaming” due to the conversation he provided to Antoine and Donovan. Sutton denied it was retaliation.

“You’ve used whistleblower way out of proportion,” Sutton said. “This is not a whistleblower. This is something that you violated.”

Police investigation

The board resolution asks the district attorney to seek information from the Smithfield Police investigation for potential use in removing Johnson.

Sessoms pointed back to the police investigation when Johnson denied the allegations in the censure resolution.

“There evidently is enough evidence for you to be suspended from the Police Department without pay,” Sessoms said. “That in and of itself makes it hard for me to believe what you have to say.”

The details about the police investigation haven’t been publicly released, but Antoine and Donovan said they were questioned about recordings that Johnson may have made.

“You have no knowledge of that so you’re speaking to something that you have zero knowledge on Ms. Sessoms and drawing a very strong conclusion,” Johnson said.