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TMCNet:  Duval schools spokeswoman transferred for use of 'redneck,' poor judgment

[February 01, 2013]

Duval schools spokeswoman transferred for use of 'redneck,' poor judgment

Feb 01, 2013 (The Florida Times-Union - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Former Duval County Public Schools spokeswoman Jill Johnson was transferred from her position after an African-American subordinate filed a complaint of workplace discrimination against her, according to district documents made public Friday.

The complaint includes claims that Johnson often used the term "redneck" to describe her husband, and it reveals an awkward conversation about Superintendent Nikolai Vitti's wife, who is black.

But ultimately there was no evidence that Johnson discriminated against Kandra Albury, a supervisor in the communications department who Johnson said had performance issues, the report said. The district's Office of Equity and Inclusion investigated the claim.

The office did find evidence "of the use of words that have racial connotation and of other conversations that are inappropriate for the workplace." Johnson said she is please the "investigation found no evidence to support discrimination." "I certainly apologize that I used a term that I did not realize could be deemed insensitive," she said. "It wasn't done in malice to my husband nor to the complainant." Albury said she was advised by her attorney not to speak on the matter. She would not provide her attorney's name.

The report also concludes that Johnson exercised poor judgment and calls for her and the entire communications department to go through sensitivity training. Johnson was due to be promoted to the district's chief of public relations and marketing, but it was announced last week she would be transferred to a position in human resources office because of the investigation.

Johnson will not be handling ethics issues in the office.

"My heart belongs to Duval County Public Schools in whatever role i play," Johnson said. "I think that my 14 years of experience in the field of communication will really help HR. This is a really great opportunity to expand my knowledge and continue my work with Duval County Public Schools." Vitti said the decision was about what was best for the district.

"Although the term 'redneck' may not be insensitive to some, it is to others," he said. "The term invokes historical perceptions of intolerance and therefore is inappropriate in the workplace and by the leader of a department, especially in communications. As we move forward as a district I didn't feel Mrs. Johnson should continue to represent the entire school district as its spokesperson." Vitti praised Johnson's work ethic and intelligence and said she will continue making valuable contributions to the district in her new role. He stressed that the reassignment was a lateral move and she will continue with her current $98,000 salary.

According to the district report, Johnson frequently used the word "redneck" to describe her husband. Albury told the district she believed the use of "redneck" was a way of saying a person is "not fond of people of color." Johnson disagreed, the report states, and the majority of her staff said Johnson treated them well and called the work environment highly effective. Three African-Americans and five whites worked for Johnson.

Two other African-American members of Johnson's former office said they also heard Johnson use the term "redneck," but did not find it offensive. One of those employees said "it's just Jill," and then went on to say Johnson often said things without thinking it could be seen as unprofessional.

The report also states that a conversation about Vitti's wife took place during a staff meetings, with one white subordinate asking "is she all the way black " The employee purported to have made the comment, Kelly Bell, denies the claim. But at least one other staffer besides Albury confirms the statement. Bell did not return a call for comment.

Albury said Johnson made a comment about Vitti's wife's shoes during the same meeting: "She had on some heels that may fly in Miami, but they sure won't work here in Jacksonville." Johnson denies making the statement but acknowledges that such a comment was discussed in her office.

The superintendent said the claims about the conversation regarding wife played no role in his decision.

"You can't be a public official and not expect people to talk about your wife or your family," he said. "To me it's irrelevant. It's hearsay." Vitti said the sensitivity training should occur in a couple of weeks. He wants whoever is hired to be the chief of public relations and marketing to participate in the training and he expects someone to be hired within two weeks.

Topher Sanders: (904) 359-4169 ___ (c)2013 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) Visit The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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