School board debates ‘unity agreement’

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SMITHFIELD — As it did the month before, the Johnston County Board of Education last week discussed but did not adopt an agreement that would govern its behavior.

No school leader has said so publicly, but the proposed agreement appears to target board member Ronald Johnson, who has readily admitted to some actions the agreement would ban. He has, for example, recorded conversations with fellow board members, and he has acted independently on complaints he has received from school system employees.

Still, board member Terri Sessoms defended the proposed agreement. “This is not something that two or three people sat around one afternoon at the kitchen table and dreamed up,” she said. “It is research based, and these are practices that are being utilized all across the nation with school boards as they not only embrace but practice their codes of ethics.”

“The policy committee really spent a lot of time looking at other school districts that are performing well in terms of their school board,” Sessoms said. “This operational agreement is a compilation of that research.”

But board member Teresa Grant cautioned against adopting an agreement without unanimous board support. “In the public, it’s called the unity agreement, and I think that is the goal,” she said. “For there to be unity, I think this is one of those documents that we really have to have a hundred percent consensus on. If it’s not 7-0, it’s hard to say it’s a unity agreement.”

Grant had qualms with some provisions in the proposed agreement, including one that would make the chairman the lone spokesman for the board. “In most circumstances, that is a perfectly good way to handle things,” she said.

But board votes, Grant noted, are not always unanimous. “When we have a split, he’s going to speak for the majority,” she said of the chairman. “But the person who votes separate is going to be very passionate about why they voted the way they voted and may want to share that as well.”

“I think when the chairman can speak for the board, that’s a great thing,” Grant added. “But there’s always going to be the opportunity that someone may want to speak.”

In agreeing with Grant, Johnson said he had no intention of suddenly going mute. “From here on out, if someone asks me what I think, I’m not going to shy away from telling them,” he said. “But I think it’s important to do it in an agreeable fashion. I think that’s the pinnacle. That’s the goal.”

No agreement, even if well intentioned, should silence individual board members, Johnson said, “because we’re all seven here for a reason, because people want to hear from us.”

“They didn’t put just one of us here,” Johnson said of voters. “They put all of us here.”

Board member Peggy Smith acknowledged the concerns of Grant and Johnson. “I have great respect for what you all just said,” she said. “We vote our conscience, and if we differ on those conscience issues, then that’s our privilege.”

But on weighty matters like a superintendent search, the board should speak with one voice, Smith said. “That’s the chairman’s job to communicate with the media,” she said.

Smith called the proposed agreement “a great stab at a policy that will move us forward.”

Sessoms said that when the board makes a decision, all members should support that decision. “We should not stifle another person’s voice on this board, because all ideas and all perspectives are valuable,” she said. “But whatever the majority of the board does ... we should all support that when we walk out.

“Because if we walk out of here split, it splits our community.”

Chairman Todd Sutton suggested that the board’s standing committees review the proposed agreement and recommend any changes.