State schools Superintendent Mark Johnson has long been a fan of technology in classrooms. He campaigned on it before winning office in 2016, although he had difficulty explaining precisely how he wanted technology used and specifically how it would benefit students. Now he’s struggling to explain something new — a $6 million purchase of iPads the state made shortly after Johnson visited Apple headquarters in California earlier this year. He also raised a big red flag Wednesday by trying to quell public discussion about the purchase.
First, some background: Johnson announced Aug. 7 that his department would be providing a new iPad for most every K-3 public school classrooms in the state. As the Raleigh News & Observer reported then, the purchase was made with $6 million that was supposed to be directed to teachers in 2016 but had gone unspent, according to the Department of Public Instruction.
There was some grumbling then about local districts knowing better how to spend money on their classrooms than the state superintendent, but soon, advocacy group NC Policy Watch asked a bigger question: Did Johnson bypass established procedures and protocols in making the purchase without taking bids first? The answer appears to be yes, and what’s worse is that the iPads purchase came after Johnson and a group of education officials and lawmakers traveled to Cupertino on Apple’s dime. (That trip included a presentation on Apple’s campus titled “Literacy and the iPad.”)
Paid trips, of course, are considered a gift under N.C. law, and state ethics statutes say N.C. officials generally can’t accept gifts from vendors. Such statutes are designed to stop officials like state superintendents from favoring one company over another.
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The folks at NC Policy Watch aren’t the only ones with raised eyebrows. Johnson, a Republican, was questioned Wednesday about the iPads at a State Board of Education meeting. That’s where the latest red flag comes in.
If there’s ever a time to keep asking questions, it’s when an elected official says he wants to talk about the public’s business privately. Board members — and perhaps the state ethics commission — should press Johnson for answers regarding the iPads purchase. For starters: Johnson says the purchase was made using a pre-existing contract, one that he presumably thinks allowed him to bypass a bidding process. Johnson should produce that contract and explain in detail how it allowed for a no-bid purchase.
Johnson also should show why either he or the Apple trip was exempt from state ethics rules involving vendors and gifts.
A $6 million iPads expenditure is not a particularly big deal, given the $13 billion-plus North Carolina spends on schools each year. It is a big deal, however, when a public official thinks that the rules don’t apply to him. Johnson needs to explain publicly — not in emails or phone calls — why that’s not the case with his Apple trip and iPads purchase.