Commentary, Education

Looking for sense in Mark Johnson’s IStation saga? Look elsewhere.

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

Whatever you may think of North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson, the IStation saga makes zero sense.

Zip. Zilch. Nada.

My friends, this is “Waterworld” level bonkers, although Kevin Costner’s legendarily soggy sci-fi is making an unpleasant amount of sense in retrospect.  

Charlotte advocate Justin Parmenter authored a tortuous rundown of the IStation proceedings this morning, a head-spinning collection of allegations and denials and genuinely, supremely confusing events concerning Johnson’s awarding of a multi-million dollar contract for a K-3 reading test.

It’s impossible to make this “long story short,” so I’ll let Parmenter tell you the details.

From his post today:

Last week, the NC Department of Public Instruction finally released informationrelated to the procurement process which ended with Superintendent Mark Johnson unilaterally awarding a three-year, multi-million dollar contract for North Carolina’s K-3 diagnostic reading assessment to Istation.

Both Johnson and DPI Communications Director Graham Wilson had previously claimed that an advisory committee assembled in the fall of 2018 had failed to come to a consensus or make a recommendation on the contract. The records provided by DPI show those claims are absolutely false.

The documents also reveal some important details about the path Johnson took as he disregarded the input of the team of evaluators.  However, the release omits records which will be crucial in substantiating DPI’s version of events.

Here’s what we know based on the records DPI released:

On October 5, 2018, the Request for Proposal (RFP) evaluation team first met under the direction of co-business managers Pam Shue and Amy Jablonski to discuss background for the project, evaluation ground rules, and how the process would work. The team included both voting members and non-voting members and was made up of DPI employees and a broad collection of subject matter experts.

Notice the importance of selecting an effective dyslexia screener in the initial project scope as presented to the RFP evaluation committee.  Some of the strongest outcry that has followed Johnson’s selection of Istation has been about the tool’s inability to flag children who are at risk for dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities. DPI representatives have responded by explaining that dyslexia screening is outside the purview of Read to Achieve and is not the state’s responsibility, as DPI Director of K-3 Literacy Tara Galloway told the State Board of Education last week.

Individual team members were given until mid-November to evaluate the four vendors (Amplify, Istation, NWEA, and Curriculum Associates), at which time they were expected to be prepared to meet, discuss their findings, and come to a consensus ranking which would later be presented to Superintendent Johnson.

The consensus meeting took place on November 19 and 20, 2018. Notes from the records release indicate that participants were reminded at the outset of the meeting that their goal was to arrive at a consensus on which product should be selected, and that “consensus means general agreement and not unanimity.”

The team discussed their findings in painstaking detail before ranking the products. They agreed unanimously that Amplify was the best choice. Istation came in second.

On December 4, 2018, Amy Jablonski, Pam Shue, DPI Procurement Officer Tymica Dunn, and Project Manager Srirekha Viswanathan met with Superintendent Mark Johnson to present the committee’s findings in a PowerPoint, which is included in the released DPI records. They told Johnson that the team had selected Amplify’s mClass tool as its top choice to be used as the K-3 reading diagnostic assessment in all of North Carolina’s schools.

The next records DPI provided are from a meeting on January 8, 2019, between Johnson and the members of the evaluation team. According to state records, the gathering was characterized as a “consensus meeting to recommend finalist for negotiations,” which is odd since the team had already presented its unambiguous recommendation to Johnson the month before.

According to the notes, Mark Johnson began the meeting by thanking those present for their input on the K-3 screener selection. He gave a speech about the importance of freeing up more time for teachers to teach and the need to provide them with the right tools. As this was his first reaction to the team recommending that schools continue using the Amplify tool, Johnson’s comments could be interpreted as an attempt to influence the team toward changing their recommendation to Istation (a computer-based tool which Istation advertises as requiring minimal class time). Johnson then asked the 10 voting members present to vote for the second time and stepped out of the room “to maintain integrity of the process.”

On March 8, 2019, another meeting was held to discuss the procurement. This time only 8 of the 10 DPI voting members who had been at the previous meeting were present. Superintendent Johnson was not in attendance, but new General Counsel Jonathan Sink was.After the superintendent exited the room, team members wrote their choices on sticky notes, and the project manager tallied the results. Amplify again easily came out on top, with six people recommending negotiations proceed with Amplify only, three with Istation only, and one voting that negotiations continue with both companies. Pam Shue was tasked with informing Johnson of the committee’s recommendation the next day.

Sink — a former attorney for House Speaker Tim Moore’s office and the newly-named executive director of the state Republican Party — informed those present that the procurement process was being cancelled. According to the notes, he gave two reasons for the cancellation. The first reason was that a voting member of the evaluation committee had breached confidentiality on the procurement process. The second reason provided was that there had been no unanimous consensus in selecting a vendor for the K-3 reading assessment.

There are a couple of important things to note here. First of all, Sink gave no additional detail on the alleged confidentiality breach at the meeting, and the records DPI released include no information about exactly what the breach was or the identity of the person responsible.

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. If it did, records detailing the breach should have been provided to the public as information relevant to the procurement process. Nothing in North Carolina public records law prevents DPI from releasing that information and corroborating the claim.

Secondly, remember that the evaluation team had been informed from the beginning of the RFP process that “consensus means general agreement and not unanimity,” so the lack of unanimous agreement does not seem to be a valid reason for cancelling the procurement.  Indeed, it’s hard to imagine procurements in general being successful if the process required those involved to unanimously agree.

After the March 8 meeting, the RFP process was cancelled and restarted with a smaller evaluation committee which had very little expertise in literacy or teaching. The new committee selected Istation as the vendor, and Mark Johnson announced the contract award to the public on June 7.

If the superintendent indeed worried that he would stain the “integrity of the process” with his handling of the IStation fiasco, we can all see why. And the documents turned over by the state agency make for an uncomfortable narrative — in which it would appear the superintendent jettisoned his own processes once they became inconvenient for him.

It’s nice to give someone the benefit of the doubt, but the doubts are fast outpacing the benefits here. Either’s someone’s pants are on fire or they’ve badly mixed up their timeline.

A discussion of IStation vs. Amplify or any other tool is, truly, for another day. But a discussion about the power in Johnson’s office, and what he chooses to do with it, is for this day.

This is not the first time Johnson’s processes and motives have been questioned. A Policy Watch report last year detailed the criticisms of Johnson’s abrupt purchase of $6 million in Apple iPads, weeks after the tech Goliath wooed Johnson and state lawmakers in Silicon Valley.

As much as that story puts our ethics laws in a broader spotlight, it should invite closer scrutiny of the state’s murky contracting processes, and whether our state leaders require more oversight before they’re entrusted with dishing out millions in public dollars.

There may be more documents forthcoming, but in the meantime, everything about this story is offensively befuddling.

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