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Editorial blasts Superintendent Mark Johnson’s bizarre Putin-like blackout

In a story broken by NC Policy Watch reporter Billy Ball last week [1], it was revealed that the state’s new conservative schools superintendent has placed a virtual gag order on information sharing within his department. As Ball reported:

“Multiple sources within the department, past and present, say the edict will slow or stop the dispersal of vital information in the summer months as the agency prepares for the 2017-2018 academic year. Some of those sources wished to go unnamed, fearing reprisal.

‘In the past, we’ve been trusted as professionals to go ahead and communicate,’ one longtime staffer told Policy Watch. ‘This is a political control move, and it’s just blatant. I don’t know you can interpret it any other way.’

Over the weekend, the editorial page of the Wilmington Star News weighed in on the controversy [2] by blasting Johnson, whom it likened to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. Here’s the conclusion:

“Just recently, he ordered his department’s staff to stay off their email server for the entire month of July, saying they would ‘take a break in the distribution of information to the field and to other lists for stakeholders.’

This struck lots of former employees — and members of the N.C. Association of Educators — as more than a trifle odd.

July is normally a busy month for the Department of Public Instruction. These might be the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, but at this point the opening of the fall school term is only six weeks away.

State education officials have to sort through all sorts of new rules that The Honorables, in their wisdom, just imposed upon them, including 24 mandatory reporting requirements.

Johnson says the staff will communicate as necessary in other ways — by quill pen, perhaps, or carrier pigeon?

And besides, he’ll still email out public meeting notices required by law and updates to the student information system, which includes end-of-year requirements for the schools.

Otherwise, with the department’s communications director just retired, and the office vacant, all communications have to pass directly through Johnson’s office to be approved.

Vladimir Putin would be impressed.

Why the security crackdown? There are some possibilities.

A darling of the Republican faction running the state Senate, Johnson will be enforcing changes in the department required under the newly adopted state budget.

This will include budget cuts, even as the state’s total school enrollment grows, and the elimination of several specific posts in the department’s hierarchy.

By coincidence, many of these happen to have been filled by known associates of ex-Superintendent Atkinson and of state Board of Education chairman Bill Cobey, a Republican ex-congressman who has run afoul of the party’s current flavor of orthodoxy.

Apparently a lot of work needs to be done in the dark when nobody’s watching and cowed employees aren’t talking. It’s hard to see how any of this will do much good for North Carolina’s students.

Maybe Johnson could muster a tweet.”