State CIO Eric Boyette rules state Department of Public Instruction mishandled ’emergency purchase’ for Istation services

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

The Istation saga gets curiouser and curiouser.

It seems the Jan. 7 “emergency” that led State Superintendent Mark Johnson to sign a $928,570 contract with Istation for the state’s reading diagnostic contract wasn’t an emergency after all, according to Eric Boyette, CIO for the Department of Information Technology (DIT).

Boyette cancelled the state’s contract with Istation late last week but allowed a new “emergency contract” with the firm for the same amount to keep the reading diagnostic tool in North Carolina’s K-3 classrooms through March 31.

Boyette cancelled the contract because he didn’t believe the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) handled the purchase for services properly. His primary concern was that NCDPI didn’t get prior approval before awarding the contract to Istation.

Johnson was notified of Boyette’s decision in a letter dated Jan. 23.

“NCDPI had ample time to prepare a purchase before and after the December 31, 2019 expiration of the “no cost” Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) executed August 27, 2019,” Boyette wrote.

Boyette is referring to an MOA between Istation and NCDPI in which Istation agreed to work for free until December 31.

After a judge refused to lift a stay on Jan. 7 blocking NCDPI from paying for the service, teachers were left without a program to test students at the beginning of the mid-year assessment period.

Boyette said he understood the “urgency” of the situation because of NCDPI’s obligations under the state’s “Read to Achieve” law enacted in 2013 to ensure North Carolina school children are reading at or above grade-level by third grade.

“I recommend you initiate a new request for quotes to procure these services through the legal process to select a vendor that can best meet the needs of North Carolina students, families, teachers, and schools,” Boyette said.

NCDPI submitted the request Jan. 23. It was approved a day later by Patti Bowers, DIT’s chief procurement officer.

When asked about the new contract Monday, NCDPI spokesman Graham Wilson responded:

“DIT and DPI worked together to approve an emergency purchase. The contract is identical to the original emergency contract.

Johnson had claimed that the judge’s refusal to lift the stay created an emergency for NCDPI because the state was in danger of being without the reading assessment tool required by law.

In such cases, Johnson said NCDPI procurement rules allow an “immediate, emergency purchase to prevent the cessation of an important program.”

Boyette argued in his letter that there was plenty of time for NCDPI to get the required approval.

“At any time following that expiration (December 31, 2019 expiration of the MOA) or following the January 7, 2020) decision of the Superior Court, NCDPI staff could have contacted myself or staff at the N.C. Department of Information Technology seeking verbal approval to develop and execute the purchase as required by the Administrative Code,” Boyette said. “No attempt was made to contact me or my staff.”

Johnson initially awarded Istation the reading diagnostic contract in June after a controversial bid process.

Amplify, an Istation competitor whose mClass assessment tool had been used in North Carolina’s K-3 classrooms for several years, filed a protest over the award, contending the contract was unfairly awarded. In August, the DIT granted Amplify a temporary stay against the use of the Istation reading assessment tool.

Jonathan Shaw, the chief counsel for DIT, upheld the stay in December, contending that the “evidence and arguments of record” are sufficient to indicate that DPI failed to comply with state law and information technology procurement rules and “jeopardized the integrity and fairness of the procurement process.”

Johnson has claimed that the procurement process was tainted. He contends, among other things, that some committee members breached confidentiality and were biased in ways that tilted the evaluation in favor of Amplify and its mClass reading assessment tool previously used by the state.

Earlier this month, Shaw heard five days of testimony from Amplify, Istation and NCDPI about the June contract award. Boyette is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether the contract was appropriately awarded to Istation.

Many teachers have been critical of the switch from Amplify’s mClass to Istation. They have questioned the procurement process and contend Johnson ignored the recommendations of an evaluation committee that ranked mClass over Istation.

The reading diagnostic tool is a companion to “Read to Achieve.”

The results haven’t been great even as North Carolina has spent $150 million on the initiative. More than half of the state’s children in K-3 are still not reading at grade level.

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