Politics & Government

Records show NC superintendent bypassed committee to award $8.3 million state contract

NC schools getting new K-3 reading diagnostic tool

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has selected Istation to provide reading diagnostic tools for K-3 teachers and students beginning with the 2019-2020 school year.
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The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has selected Istation to provide reading diagnostic tools for K-3 teachers and students beginning with the 2019-2020 school year.

Newly released documents show that State Superintendent Mark Johnson awarded a multi-million dollar contract to test the reading skills of North Carolina students to a different company than the one recommended by an evaluation committee Johnson had formed.

North Carolina is switching from using the Amplify mClass program to test K-3 students under the Read To Achieve program to the computer-based Istation program in a deal worth $8.3 million over three years. The state Department of Public Instruction has denied reports that the evaluation committee had recommended mClass.

But documents released Friday as part of a public records request show that Amplify was the group’s top choice.

Johnson is now saying that the rankings that put Amplify on top were based on “misstatements of fact” by members of the evaluation committee. He’s standing by his recommendation to switch to Istation, which the state’s elementary schools will begin using for the 2019-20 school year.

“Istation is the best reading diagnostic tool for North Carolina, and I believe using Istation will yield quality data that will better support success for our students, meeting students where they are and helping them grow, while also reducing the time teachers must spend testing students,” Johnson said in a statement that accompanied the release of the documents.

“DPI and the State Board of Education adhered to all laws, rules and polices during this procurement to ensure fairness and objectivity.”

Justin Parmenter, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg teacher who requested the public records, says the documents show that Johnson and his staff has lied about the process.

“The records raise legitimate concerns about whether or not the input of a broad committee of knowledgeable stakeholders was honored in the way it should have been in making this decision,” Parmenter said in a statement Monday.

Controversial decision to switch

Since the Read To Achieve program began in 2013, K-3 teachers have had students read aloud to them using mClass to assess their skills. Under Istation, students will be tested on a computer program, with the results being provided to teachers.

The decision to switch has been controversial, with teachers and superintendents across the state asking for a delay. Istation has said that teachers who are now being trained in the new program will come to love it.

Kieran Shanahan, an attorney representing Istation, has sent cease and desist notices to several critics of the new contract. In a statement Monday, Shanahan said those people are “misrepresenting Istation by making false, misleading and defamatory public statements” and are unfairly harming and maligning the company.

“Istation was legally and appropriately awarded the contract in North Carolina and has a proven record and reputation as an industry leader in early education assessments across the country,” Shanahan said. “The cease and desist notices provided are a lawful and appropriate starting point to end the misinformation, set the record straight, protect Istation’s interests, and let the state move forward.”

Shanahan also noted that state reading scores had dropped in the years that the mClass program had been used.

In his statement, Shanahan also charges that a committee member may have been employed by Amplify.

Graham Wilson, a spokesman for Johnson, said Monday that a whistleblower informed DPI that one of the committee members failed to disclose they had a prior business relationship with Amplify. Wilson did not identify the individual, who he said is no longer employed by DPI.

But Wilson said that person served on an earlier review committee that was disbanded in March 2018. That was not the later committee that recommended mClass.

What do the documents say?

The 166 pages of documents released Friday show that an evaluation committee made up of DPI staff unanimously recommended mClass in a November meeting. Istation came in second overall out of the four companies that applied for the contract.

At a January meeting, the committee again recommended Amplify. Of the 10 votes taken then, six were for negotiating with Amplify, three for negotiating with Istation and one for negotiating with both companies.

But at a March meeting, Jonathan Sink, then the general counsel at DPI, announced that the procurement process was being canceled. The documents show that Sink said that one of the committee members had “breached the confidentiality of the procurement process which jeopardized the legality of the procurement.”

DPI would cite the breach to negotiate directly with Amplify and Istation before going with Istation.

“Given DPI’s pattern of dishonesty on the procurement and Mark Johnson’s apparent desire to award the contract to Istation, it’s fair to wonder whether a breach really occurred,” Parmenter wrote in a blog post Monday morning “If it did, records detailing the breach should have been provided to the public as information relevant to the procurement process.”

In the Friday document release, Johnson said DPI can’t release every detail of the procurement process until after a protest filed by Amplify is decided. Amplify is meeting with DPI on Thursday as part of the protest process.

“Unfortunately this means the public records released now might not present a full picture of the process,” Johnson wrote.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.
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