Report: Duval County schools spokeswoman called husband 'redneck'

Subordinate said comments, actions showed bias against African-Americans

Jill Johnson
Jill Johnson

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A Duval County Public Schools report into the reassignment of the school district's spokeswoman last month details what was deemed as an "insensitive comment" she made that was reported by one of her subordinates.

Jill Johnson, who was the district's spokeswoman for five years, has since assumed a director position in Human Resources, a lateral move.

According to the report, Kandra Albury, who was under Johnson's supervision, filed a racial discrimination complaint against Johnson. Among her complaints was that Johnson used the term "redneck" routinely in reference to her own husband, a term Albury, who is black, believes is a way of saying someone is "not fond of people of color."

Johnson treated other subordinates in a "jovial" manner, but not so with Albury, whom she tried to avoid "at all costs," according to the report.

The report says Johnson would point out Albury's errors, but would overlook the errors of two others on her staff, both of whom are white.

There have been conversations about Superintendent Nikolai Vitti's wife, who is black, including about the kinds of high heels she wears, according to the report. Albury believes the comments show a bias against African-Americans, the report says.

School district investigators found "no evidence to support the allegation of discrimination on the basis of race. However, there is evidence of the use of words that have racial connotations and of other conversations that are inappropriate for the workplace," the report reads.

Johnson had recently given Albury a subpar job performance review, which Albury disputed. The investigators found "her struggle with job-related tasks, combined with unprofessional language by her colleagues and discussions about human differences, may have contributed to her belief that race plays a part in her interactions" with Johnson, according to the report.

Johnson had this response in writing to her use of the word redneck: "In no way would I describe the man I'm married to in a derogatory manner," and "truly was unaware that referring to him as a redneck would be deemed racially insensitive."

She denied making the comment about Vitti's wife's shoes, and said it was a reporter who did, according to the report.

Johnson feels the accusations by Albury "were made in retaliation for an evaluation I conducted of her performance in late December," the report reads. Johnson said she agrees with the report's findings that the "allegations are without merit, and are merely the unsupported complaints of a poorly performing employee who resents her supervisor's efforts to improve her workplace performance."

"I am remorseful that an individual found a word that I said insensitive," Johnson said Friday. "I think certainly had I known prior to utilizing that word that I wouldn't have."

Vitti made a point of saying that although the investigation found there was no evidence of racial discrimination, he does take issue with the word redneck.

"It's always on context, but I think in the workplace, the word redneck is not professional, and for some, it evokes historical ties to intolerance," he said.

His issued statement reads:

"Although the term 'redneck' may not be considered insensitive to some, it is to others. The term evokes the historical perception of intolerance, and therefore is inappropriate in the workplace as the leader of a department, namely communications. As we move our district forward, I did not feel that Ms. Johnson should continue to represent the entire school district as its spokesperson.

"However, since my arrival, Ms. Johnson has consistently demonstrated a strong work ethic, persistence, and intelligence and I believe she will continue to contribute to the improvement of the District in her new role."

Employment attorney Richard Margulies, of Jackson Lewis LLP, said what muddies the water in this type of situation is that what some people may find funny may be offensive to others.

"Given where we are in today's society, you could offend someone any time with anything you say almost," Margulies said.

He said this issue is an extremely gray area, with the exception of overtly racist comments or "referring to someone as old would be another indiscretion, using some sort of comment like retarded would be another type of lightning rod that immediately is unacceptable in any workplace."

The bottom line, Margulies said, is nothing is off the record.

"What was acceptable 10 years ago has changed from what is acceptable today," he said.