Education, News

State Board of Education wants to raise bar for purchases by state superintendent

State Superintendent Mark Johnson has pushed to make Istation (company symbol at left) the state contractor for K-3 reading test assessments.  

The State Board of Education (SBE) is weighing a policy revision that would set $500,000 as the maximum amount the state superintendent could spend on goods and services without board approval.

The proposed change was introduced this week at the SBE monthly meeting. The board is expected to take up the proposal again when it meets next month.

If approved, the policy change would be tantamount to a slap on the wrist for Superintendent Mark Johnson who made what some officials consider a questionable emergency purchase for services from Istation, the firm that is providing North Carolina’s reading diagnostic tool to assess reading levels for students in grades K-3.

Some SBE members have questioned why Johnson didn’t first consult with the board before making the purchase for services.

And educators and others have questioned whether the expiration of a “no-pay” contract with Istation constituted an emergency. Istation had been implementing its program in state schools for free but that arrangement ended in December, leaving state teachers without a tool to test reading levels at the height of the mid-year reading assessment period.

Currently, the superintendent can spend up to $1 million before SBE approval is required.

The deal Johnson signed with Istation totaled $928,570, an amount that did not require SBE approval.

Last month, State CIO Eric Boyette cancelled the contract with Istation but allowed a new emergency contract with the firm for the same amount to keep the reading diagnostic in classrooms.

Boyette 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.

The SBE also proposes revising the conditions under which the superintendent may execute an emergency contract.

The superintendent would be required to notify the SBE chairman before an emergency contract is executed.

Here’s what the proposed policy revision says about emergency contracts:

“If emergency or pressing need action is necessary and the proposed contract would result in an expenditure of $500,000 or more, then the Superintendent or the Superintendent’s designee shall seek prior verbal approval from the State Board of Education Chair if time permits,” the proposed policy revision reads. Subsequently, whether or not such prior approval was possible, an explanation of the emergency or pressing need purchase shall be reported in writing to the State Board.”

Graham Wilson, a spokesman for NCDPI, said Thursday that the policy revisions would “only add a few more contracts they [SBE] would need to vote on.”

NCDPI and Amplify, an Istation competitor, have been embroiled in litigation over the contract award to Istation.

Amplify filed a protest over the award, contending the contract was unfairly awarded. In August, the N.C. Department of Information Technology granted Amplify a temporary stay against the use of the Istation  assessment tool.

A five-day hearing was held last month on the merit of the protest. Boyette is expected to render a decision in the coming weeks.

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