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WRAL: State schools superintendent complains of “disturbing” spending at Department of Public Instruction

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

The head of North Carolina’s public school administration says he’s found “disturbing” spending within the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), according to a WRAL report Monday.

Johnson, a Republican elected last year, took aim at DPI expenditures following suggestions by State Board of Education members that he was lax in defending the K-12 agency from deep legislative cuts.

From WRAL:

State Superintendent Mark Johnson listened last week as State Board of Education members bemoaned the millions of dollars in recent budget cuts to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. The cuts have harmed staff and students, one board member explained, and he urged Johnson to join them in reaching out to state lawmakers to say “enough is enough.”

But Johnson declined. Instead, he said in his 11 months as superintendent he has found excessive spending at the state education agency and said he hopes an upcoming $1 million audit he has commissioned will root out any other potential waste at the agency.

“In my time as state superintendent, I have found a lot of things that I’ve found disturbing about this department,” Johnson said. “I will not go into the long list of them, but one little item that I can point out is our SurveyMonkey accounts.”

Johnson explained that the agency uses the online tool to send out surveys to principals, teachers and others to get feedback on important topics. Instead of the agency sharing one account, Johnson said he discovered it was paying for nine accounts. SurveyMonkey plans cost anywhere from $0 for a basic account to nearly $1,200 a year for a premier plan. DPI’s accounts varied in level.

“The really great professional staff (at DPI) pointed that out to me, and that’s something we’re taking care of,” Johnson said.

The communications department’s account alone was $800 to $900 a year, according to newly hired communications director Drew Elliot. He said the agency has stopped anyone from renewing an annually billed account and has begun consolidating them. In addition to the nine SurveyMonkey accounts, the North Carolina Virtual Public School has its own contract with Qualtrics for surveys, Elliot said.

WRAL News asked the superintendent to provide other examples of spending that he has found disturbing since he took office in January. Lindsey Wakely, the superintendent’s senior policy advisor and chief legal counsel, said they did not have a pre-existing document tracking or detailing any examples, but she agreed to put together a list.

“Below are some examples of DPI’s past spending practices and costs, while facing budget cuts, that the Superintendent and his staff have identified and are seeking to address moving forward,” Wakely wrote.

In addition to the nine SurveyMonkey accounts, the superintendent’s office identified the following items:

Extensive conference-related costs, such as:

Paying excess rates for conference speakers

Large sums for meals and room rentals

$25,000 to sponsor World View Symposium held by UNC

$2,500 to sponsor one episode of a single-market television program.

Overhead charges paid to hire personnel through intergovernmental contracts rather than directly hiring personnel, which would cost DPI less.

Reversion of over $15 million in Excellent Public Schools Act funds that could have been used to support early childhood literacy.

As Policy Watch has reported, the state K-12 bureaucracy has been a frequent target of Republican budget writers. On top of more than $19 million in state cuts since 2009, lawmakers cut $3.2 million from the department this year, forcing reductions that officials said would reduce services to poor and struggling school districts.

The GOP superintendent has been reluctant to criticize members of his own party throughout the budget wrangling, which also slotted $1 million for Johnson to audit DPI in the coming year.

State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey

According to WRAL, Johnson’s criticism of the agency prompted this response from State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey:

In an interview with WRAL News after last week’s meeting, State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey praised the superintendent’s efforts to find wasteful spending at the agency.

“Well, I’m glad to hear that,” Cobey said, adding that he was not aware of what other waste the superintendent had found.

After WRAL News provided Cobey with the superintendent’s list of spending issues, the chairman emailed a statement, saying he “applaud(s) the efficient use of appropriated funds and the elimination of any wasteful spending.”

“As the administrative head of DPI, it is important that the Superintendent and his staff continuously focus on the best utilization of all appropriated funds for the benefit of the public school children of NC,” Cobey wrote.

Lawmakers cut the education agency’s operating funds by 6.2 percent – $3.2 million – this year and 13.9 percent – $7.3 million – next year. State board members have urged the superintendent to speak out against the cuts in recent months, but he has repeatedly refused, saying he prefers to talk with lawmakers privately and does not think it’s productive “to try to negotiate through the media.”

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