Amplify CEO vows to fight on for state’s K-3 reading assessment contract

Public schools advocates held a press conference to ask State Attorney General Josh Stein and State Auditor Beth Wood to investigate Superintendent Mark Johnson’s decision to award the state’s K-3 reading assessment contract to Istation.

The CEO of the firm that lost out to Istation in a bid to land the state’s K-3 reading assessment contract has vowed to continue to fight for the $8.3 million award.

In a statement late Friday, Amplify CEO Larry Berger said Amplify will “take the next steps in the protest process and remain open to constructive solutions that work for North Carolina educators and students.”

“By law, there are 60 days to appeal the decision to DIT [state Department of Information Technology], though we hope that the review process will be expedited, given that we are in the midst of back to school,” Berger said in a statement Monday. “We are considering our options.”

Berger said schools and districts across North Carolina are “choosing to extend their relationship with Amplify for the upcoming school year, both for the sake of continuity in their early literacy programs and in preparation for a potential reversal of this procurement.”

When asked for clarification, a spokeswoman for Amplify said some schools and districts have reached out to the firm about continuing to use its mCLASS reading assessment tool rather than switching to Istation.

Policy Watch couldn’t reach State Department of Public Instruction spokesman Graham Wilson on Monday to ask if individual schools and districts could continue to use mCLASS.

An amendment to Senate Bill 438 brought forward by State Rep. Graig Meyer, (D-Orange), that would allow school districts to decide whether to switch to Istation or use another reading assessment tool has been approved by the House.

The bill, which contains provision to improve the state’s Read to Achieve legislation, passed on third reading in the House but failed to concur in the Senate. A conference committee has been appointed so lawmakers can work out their differences.

Berger’s statement about continuing to fight for the reading assessment contract comes in the wake of Superintendent Mark Johnson’s response to Amplify’s protest petition over the award of the $8.3 million contract to Istation.

Johnson said the procurement process was “fair” and “objective.”  He said Istation was chosen because it’s the best diagnostic tool for the state.

Meanwhile, Berger contends there were irregularities in the process that led Johnson to award the contract to Istation.

“The more evidence that comes out, including what we see in the DPI letter today [July 26]], the more it seems to us that there were serious flaws in the procurement,” Berger said.

Johnson said an evaluation committee recommended Istation over competing firms, including Amplify.

Evaluation committees did on two occasions recommend Amplify over Istation, but those requests for proposals were cancelled due to what Johnson described as “inappropriate actions” by a “small number of career Department [state Department of Public Instruction] employees” who were biased and failed to honor non-disclosure agreements.

“These employees are no longer with the Department,” Johnson wrote.

Here’s a list of the inappropriate actions Johnson claims were taken by former staffers:

  • One did not disclose that she had previously been paid by Amplify, her most recent employer before the Department, even though she signed the no conflict of interest document.
  • One violated the non-disclosure agreement to leak updates to outsiders about confidential issues.
  • A whistleblower provided evidence of a text message discussion detailing how committee members had voted and characterizing my priorities and efforts for educators as attempts to “appease lazy ass teachers.” (Their words, not mine.)
  • Members of the selection committee employed biased procedures that benefited the incumbent vendor (Amplify) over other vendors by not clarifying questions on specifications. If the questions had been clarified, as required by the procurement rules and procedures, it would have benefited other vendors.
  • Members of the selection committee employed biased procedures that benefited the incumbent vendor (Amplify) over other vendors by allowing untrue statements or nonfactual opinions to be presented as fact during their ranking process. If factually correct statements had been presented, it would have benefited other vendors.
  • Members of the selection committee violated procurement policies outlined in the Department of Information Technology procurement manual by improperly adding weight to select criteria when ranking the vendors.

The Istation contract award has been a top subject of conversation in recent weeks.

Senate Democrats jumped into the fray last week by calling for Senate leader Phil Berger to launch a legislative review of the contract award to Istation over Amplify, which scored higher and was the initial evaluation committee’s clear choice.

Berger has not responded to the request.

A group of parents and public schools advocates have asked State Attorney General Josh Stein and State Auditor Beth Wood to investigate the contract award.

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