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SMITHFIELD — Johnston County Board of Education Chairman Mike Wooten said Friday the school board has instructed administrators to expedite former Clayton High School Principal Bennett Jones’ appeal of his transfer to a central office position.
Wooten said the school board’s Policy 5240 “is designed to give all sides an opportunity to present and discuss the facts of each case and to present the board with the information it needs to make a decision that is in the best interest of students and the school system.”
Wooten will appoint a committee of at least two school board members and the appeal hearing will be held in closed session.
According to the policy, the board committee may affirm, reverse or modify Superintendent Ross Renfrow’s decision to transfer Jones.
Renfrow’s decision will be reversed only “if the decision was: in violation of constitutional provisions, in excess of statutory authority or jurisdiction of the school system, made upon unlawful procedure, affected by other error of law, unsupported by substantial evidence in view of the entire record as submitted; or arbitrary or capricious,” the policy states.
The appeals committee’s decision is final.
Renfrow transferred Jones to the central office without explanation on Aug. 12. Jones has been assigned to serve as lead administrator of the Choice Plus program.
“Choice Plus is a central administrator position working with 6-12th grade students of our district needing an alternative model of instruction.” said JCPS spokeswoman Dolores Gill. These students may have disciplinary and/ or emotional concerns in which policy requires a different placement. It is located at West Campus.”
The school board approved the transfer at its Aug. 13 meeting, which had an overflow crowd of Clayton High School students and parents supporting their former principal.
In the hallways, Clayton High School students chanted, “Bring Bennett back!”
Due to the board’s public comment policy requiring speakers to submit a written transcript of their comments 48 hours before a scheduled meeting, students who stood in the boardroom for more than two hours and those seated weren’t permitted to speak.
Wooten did acknowledge them at the meeting’s conclusion.
“I would like to thank the students from the Clayton school district for coming,” said Wooten. “We appreciate your passion and pride in your school and your community. Thank you and your parents for coming. We appreciate you.”
Jones’ transfer comes in the wake of a Johnston County Public Schools investigation launched in June over about allegations of grade-tampering at Clayton High School to assure a student’s academic eligibility to play on the football team.
At the time, Wooten promised transparency once the investigation was completed.
“Normally comments on allegations are commented on after a complete investigation of the allegations that were made,” said Wooten. “I can assure you as board chair that the Board of Education will follow through to make sure Dr. Renfrow completes a full and complete investigation in a timely manner.”
Wooten said Aug. 14 the alleged grade-tampering was still under investigation and he couldn’t comment because it’s a personnel issue.
But Clayton High School parent Kim Winslow said a school board member, whom she didn’t identify, told her the investigation was over and that both the school and Jones had been cleared of any wrongdoing.
“It’s the feeling of parents and students that the school board wants to drag this on in hopes that Dr. Jones will take a job in another school district and the board can wash their hands of the matter,” said Winslow. “Let Dr. Jones be heard in front of the school board.”
Winslow said parents are concerned that Renfrow and interim Principal Chase Ferrell will scrap two popular programs Jones started — Freshman Academy and Comet Academy.
Freshman Academy was designed to ease the transition to high school and help freshmen progress through the ninth grade year and on to graduation. Comet Academy offers students schedule flexibility.
“It’s chaos for no reason,” Winslow said.
Gill said those programs will remain intact.
“The Clayton Comet Academy was not changed due to interim principal Mr. Chase Ferrell. The elimination of choice hub programs are a budget reduction,” Gill said. “All high schools are now making the same adjustments. Secondly, the freshman academy is still in operation, but with hours changed to match the entire school.”
On Aug. 14, Clayton High students held a petition-signing and rally that began at the school and was later moved to Civitan Field. Once his supporters were off campus, Jones made a surprise appearance.
“I just want to tell all of you, parents and students, that you’ve touched my heart,” said Jones. “I love all of you, I’ve always loved all of you.”
Jones said that life is unpredictable.
“You’re not always prepared for what life is going to throw at you,” said Jones. “But there’s a bigger plan out there for all of us. Nobody knows what the future’s going to be. What you guys have done in 48 hours validates what I’ve been trying to do for three years. Clayton is about love. It’s about loving each other. It’s about doing what’s right when nobody’s watching.”
Jones said success can bring jealousy.
“It doesn’t matter what your past is, people will always put tests in front of you and challenge your faith,” said Jones. “They will always challenge your integrity and your belief system. But you be true to who you are. That’s all I’ve ever tried to say to you. Be true to who you are.”
Jones then reflected on his time at Clayton High School.
“I know what we’ve done in the past and I know what we didn’t do,” said Jones. “I’m OK with that. I’ve made peace with that. What I want to tell you tonight is that I haven’t been able to say anything, and I still can’t say much. But what I can say is that I love you. This is all-in. It’s bigger than one person, it’s bigger than one school.”
Jones said he could not predict the result of his appeal.
“I can’t tell you if we’re going to get the result you want or the result I want,” said Jones. “I can’t make any promises. All I can tell you is that every day you get up and fight is a day I get up and fight. Every day that you get up and do what’s right is a day I get up and do what’s right. If you’ve not heard anything I’ve said the past three years, hear this: There’s nothing that our God can’t do.
“You stay true in your truth, I’ll stay true in my truth and the truth will win out. You’ve inspired me to want to be more.”