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Critics share hope for schools’ future

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SMITHFIELD — Now that Superintendent Ross Renfrow has retired, some of his critics are expressing hopes for the future of Johnston County Public Schools.

Clayton High School parent Kim Winslow, a leader of the Bring Back Bennett movement, hopes it will mean the reinstatement of former principal Bennett Jones. Renfrow reassigned Jones without explanation on Aug. 12.

Parents and students have held two rallies, launched an online petition and social media page and packed the boardroom at the last two school board meetings.

Now that Renfrow has retired, Winslow hopes the school board will reverse his decision.

“With Dr. Renfrow no longer involved in the grievance process, we hope that the interim superintendent will come into this process as unbiased and will review the grievance from a fair and objective viewpoint,” said Winslow. “ The superintendent is the person to make employment decisions. We certainly hope (interim superintendent) Dr. (James) Causby will review the information and determine that the transfer was not justified and ultimately make the decision to return Dr. Jones to Clayton High School.”

Withrow said Jones’ supporters did not know what to expect at the Johnston County Board of Education’s Aug. 27 closed-session meeting, after which the board announced Renfrow’s retirement.

“We were there because the board was meeting and we want to have a presence any time they meet. We had continued to ask for Dr. Jones to be heard and for Dr. Renfrow to be recused from the grievance review process, considering he was the primary person named in the grievance.,” said Winslow. “According to the board grievance policy, the superintendent has up to 15 working days to respond before the grievant can appeal to the board for a grievance hearing. We felt Dr. Renfrow was essentially stalling the response, even though the board had directed the central office to expedite the transfer appeal process.”

The Clayton High School Parent Advisory Council, twice in writing, requested to meet with school board. So far, the group has received no official response since the Aug. 27 meeting.

“Not one word,” said Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle, an advisory council member.

As to what Renfrow’s retirement means for Jones’ possible reinstatement, Doyle replied, “I have no idea.”

The Johnston County Education Summit accused Renfrow of “racial marginalization” regarding African American principals and central office staff.

The summit, an informal think tank focused on student development and education in Johnston County, also objects to the school board’s public comment policy, which has been used to censor one of its members. First Amendment attorneys say the board’s ban on speakers discussing personnel matters is likely unconstitutional and its rule requiring comments to be screened in advance has no basis in established law.

“Since February of 2019, the summit has focused on the marginalization of African American professionals within the Johnston County school system and particularly under the administration of Superintendent Ross Renfrow,” said summit Chairman Robert O’Neal. “The summit’s review of the superintendence of Dr. Ross Renfrow’s administration revealed not only systematic marginalization of African American professionals but also highlighted a lack of diversity within the ranks of traditional high school principals and extends to all levels including the classroom. Upon Dr. Ross’ departure, not much has changed.”

O’Neal said his organization’s work will continue.

“The aesthetics alone of Dr. Renfrow’s departure is a positive indicator of a desire for cultural change in the school administration,” said O’Neal. “We trust that the board of education and Interim Superintendent James Causby — a good choice, by the way — will seize the moment to usher in a new culture that ends the marginalization of African American professionals in the Johnston County school system.”

O’Neal said the board and the superintendent’s administration can turn a mission statement on the school system’s website, “to empower all students to become successful in a global society,” into reality.

“A major step in that direction is for African American children to observe professionals that look like them from the classroom to the principalship to the superintendent’s chair,” said O’Neal.

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