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.

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With Robeson elementary mulling closure, N.C.’s Innovative School District left with no schools to take over?

The Robeson County elementary school tapped for North Carolina’s controversial Innovative School District (ISD) is likely to close, the county’s school board chair tells Policy Watch, potentially leaving the state’s new charter takeover program without a school to take over in its first year.

“The state has failed us,” said Peggy Wilkins-Chavis, chairwoman of the Robeson County Board of Education.

If so, it would be a stunning setback for a school choice expansion program that so rankled public school advocates when it was approved by state lawmakers last year.

Pitched as a boon to long-lagging schools, the program would allow private charter operators, including for-profit groups, to seize control of operations and staffing at a traditional public school, with the goal of turning around dismal test scores.

But critics savaged the reform as little more than the privatization of public schools, also noting middling results from similar takeover efforts in states such as Tennessee, Louisiana and Michigan.

“It’s unfortunate that big out of state money led the General Assembly to pass a charter takeover law that is ripping communities apart,” said N.C. Association of Educators President Mark Jewell Friday. “Instead of starving our schools of resources the General Assembly should make the necessary investments to help our students be successful.”

Wilkins-Chavis spoke to Policy Watch Thursday, shortly after members of the State Board of Education officially selected Robeson’s Southside-Ashpole Elementary for the takeover district.

State law allows for district leaders to accept the takeover or move to close the school by February, a prospect that Wilkins-Chavis described as increasingly likely. District officials would redistribute students and staff at the Rowland elementary throughout the school system.

Robeson officials aren’t the first to threaten closure over membership in the ISD. Durham and Rocky Mount chiefs did the same when their local schools made the shortlist last month.

Meanwhile, the Robeson school board chair—who initially indicated support for the program before a late surge of public opposition in the southeastern North Carolina district—said she’s glad the Innovative School District may sputter in its first year.

“They have no one to blame but themselves,” Wilkins-Chavis said. “They did it the wrong way.”

Without a school to take over, ISD Superintendent Eric Hall says the district may have to pick up additional schools when they take up the matter next year. Leaders were expected to choose two schools this year and another two next fall, but this month’s developments are likely to shift that timetable.

State law clears the district to absorb at least five schools statewide in the coming years.

Southside-Ashpole was the final school remaining last month after Hall whittled down a list of 48 eligible schools, selected because they reported performance scores in the bottom 5 percent statewide and did not meet growth goals in at least one of the prior three academic years.

The K-5 school, which enrolls more than 200 students, finished with “F” scores in reading and math in 2016, according to state records.

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall

Hall has said the initiative would spur fresh ideas in the chronically low-performing school, but county commissioners and school board members bristled at the prospect of a private takeover in recent weeks.

Wilkins-Chavis also slammed state leaders Thursday because she says they did not consider recent storm damage when they tapped the Robeson County school for the ISD.

School officials are expected to spend millions in the coming years to replace school facilities, including the district’s central office, after Hurricane Matthew flooded the rural county with heavy rains in 2016.

“We’re already down,” Wilkins-Chavis said. “Why throw us down farther?”

But Hall has countered that the district’s struggles preceded the storm. He also pointed out that the three school districts that landed on the ISD’s final list with Robeson County presented plans to his office for improvements at their respective schools, but Robeson did not until after he recommended Southside-Ashpole to the State Board of Education in mid-October.

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State Board of Education members miffed by charter takeover district’s slow roll-out

State Board of Education members on Thursday approved the recommendation to launch a controversial charter takeover district with a struggling Robeson County elementary next year, but multiple members expressed frustration that the program would begin with just one school in 2018-2019.

“It isn’t the reform model I envisioned,” said Olivia Holmes Oxendine, a state board member who also resides in Robeson.

State law calls for the district to eventually choose at least five low-performing schools for the Innovative School District (ISD). And while district Superintendent Eric Hall was initially expected to pick at least two for the program’s first year in 2018-2019, Hall opted last month to tap Robeson’s Southside-Ashpole Elementary out of a list of four remaining schools in the state.

Hall said that’s because a relatively slow roll-out allows for state leaders to learn as they go along. “I want there to be no doubt about the fact that push-back is not my concern,” said Hall. “It’s about going slow to go right.”

But multiple state board members, including Oxendine, seemed miffed by that strategy this week.

“The model was a minimum of five schools and we were going to do something very bold and robust,” said Oxendine. “We were going to do it better than Tennessee or other states, because North Carolina does things better than other states.”

State Board of Education member Olivia Holmes Oxendine

Oxendine questioned why the three struggling schools that made the short-list with Southside-Ashpole—Glenn Elementary in Durham, Willis Hare Elementary in Northampton County Schools and Williford Elementary in Nash-Rocky Mount Schools—were dropped from consideration for next year.

“Each one of those schools needs to be in this model,” she said. “Absolutely needs to be.”

Oxendine demanded that state board members not forget those low-performing schools, which submitted already enacted plans for improvement in the coming years. Oxendine called on leaders to “hold their feet to the fire.”

Board member Amy White agreed, arguing that the board should require “excellence” of all schools. “It is our job to put upon those schools and those students,” said White.

The contentious charter takeover program was approved by North Carolina lawmakers last year. Supporters said the district would bring change to long-struggling traditional public schools.

Eligible schools reported performance scores in the bottom 5 percent statewide and did not meet growth goals in at least one the last three academic years.

Southside-Ashpole earned “F” scores in reading and math and did not meet growth expectations in 2016-2017, according to state data.

But skeptics argued the model, which produced lackluster results in states like Tennessee and Louisiana, would open the door for a particularly aggressive school choice expansion and, perhaps, for-profit takeovers of publicly-funded schools.

The proposal spurred heated opposition from locals in those schools being considered for the ISD’s launch year, particularly in Durham and in Robeson County, a rural, high-poverty county in eastern North Carolina.

Oxendine noted Thursday that local leaders in Robeson are already “engaged” in talks to close their selected school, the only option left to district leaders opposing the takeover model under state law. Local board members will have until February to choose whether they accept the takeover or close.

Hall said he hopes the district will not close Southside-Ashpole Elementary because its students would only be redistributed across the district.

If, however, Robeson leaders choose to close the elementary, state leaders would be left with no schools to choose from in the ISD’s first year. In that scenario, the state might have to select more schools for inclusion next year, Hall said.

Hall added that his office will receive new accountability data to review next September before he makes additional recommendations for the district. “We’ll be right back in this same spot,” he said.

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Following angry backlash in Robeson County, potential applicants for Innovative School District have second thoughts

With local opposition in Robeson County mounting to North Carolina’s controversial Innovative School District, one potential applicant for a state contract in the charter takeover program is backing out and another may soon follow.

According to records obtained by Policy Watch, Communities in Schools (CIS) of Robeson County—a local affiliate of a state and national dropout prevention program—notified state leaders Oct. 13 that they would not be applying for a contract in the charter takeover program after all.

Meanwhile, the leader of a second organization that signaled its intent to apply for the ISD is also having second thoughts. In an Oct. 25 email to ISD Superintendent Eric Hall, Alexis Franco, director of Raleigh-based Achieve Educational Partners LLC, questioned why the state was seeking an outside party to assume control at Southside-Ashpole Elementary in Robeson.

CIS of Robeson’s notice arrived the same day that ISD Superintendent Eric Hall tapped a Robeson elementary school for the district, which would allow a private charter management organization—including, possibly, a for-profit company—to wrest control of the struggling school from local school board members.

The organization, which provides programming in 17 Robeson schools and operates a local charter, notified state officials of its decision one day after a Policy Watch report detailed professional ties between Hall and at least two ISD applicants, including CIS of Robeson.

That report prompted questions about whether Hall, who will make a recommendation on the ISD contract to the State Board of Education, could be objective in the matter, although Hall said he does not believe his work experience with the organizations should be deemed a conflict.

But CIS of Robeson County Executive Director Dencie Lambdin said Monday that the organization’s decision to withdraw was prompted by the scathing reaction to a prospective charter takeover in the eastern North Carolina school district, which has been battered by storm damage in recent years.

“I think the fact that there was such strong feeling in opposition to the Innovative School District coming from our county leadership, we felt it was in the best interest of the relationship that we had to step away from that,” said Lambdin. “My board didn’t want to jeopardize the relationship that we’ve worked so long and hard to build.”

CIS of Robeson initially wrote in its August notice of intent to apply for the ISD that it hoped to win a state contract if Hall chose a school in Robeson County. It was one of eight organizations, including Achieve Educational Partners, to file a notice before the state’s Aug. 11 deadline.

Groups have until Nov. 17 to file a formal application for the district. The State Board of Education is expected to award the contract in early 2018 at Hall’s recommendation, following a third-party review of applicants.

The pool is also expected to include a group of influential charter advocates—as well as a former state lawmaker who spearheaded the ISD’s creation last year—calling themselves Achievement for All Children.

Other applicants include AMIKids Inc., The Romine Group, Phalen Leadership Academies, Learning Sciences International LLC, Global Education Resources, OmniVest LLC, and PlusUltre LLC.

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N.C. charter school leader hosts Dan Forest fundraiser attended by controversial evangelical minister

TeamCFA CEO Tony Helton (LinkedIn)

Tony Helton, one of North Carolina’s most influential charter school leaders, hosted a July fundraiser at his home for Lt. Gov. Dan Forest that was reportedly attended by an evangelical minister whose Rutherford County church has been accused of covering up sexual molestation and violent attempts to “purify” members of its congregation.

Policy Watch confirmed the reception was hosted at Helton’s Forest City home. The event, according to a News & Observer report Thursday, drew Robin Webster, a leader in Word of Faith Fellowship in Rutherford County and daughter of church founder Jane Whaley.

A February report from the Associated Press included detailed accounts from former church members who alleged Word of Faith sought to drive demons from them by beating and choking them.

According to that report, 43 former members detailed shocking violence at the evangelical church, as well as violence within the church’s K-12 private school, Word of Faith Christian School.

The report included allegations that they slapped, choked, punch, shook or threw congregants through walls in order to “purify” them, a tactic they called “blasting” prayer. Reported victims included children, toddlers and infants.

The Associated Press also detailed accusations of sexual molestation covered up by church leadership. Additionally, church leaders are being sued by a former member who said Word of Faith ministers attempted to beat the “homosexual demons” out of him.

It’s unclear what, if any, connection Helton has to the church. A Forest spokesman told the N&O Thursday that attendees were notified by the host, and by Forest’s campaign email list and Facebook page.

The reception for Forest, who is widely expected to be a Republican front-runner for governor in 2020, asked attendees to contribute between $50 and $2,500. Forest is a social conservative, a Christian and an outspoken supporter of school choice expansion in North Carolina.

Helton, as CEO of the growing TeamCFA charter network, is one of the most powerful charter school leaders in North Carolina. The Charlotte-based network runs 13 schools in the state, as well as charters in Arizona and Indiana.

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, the state’s largest advocacy organization for public school teachers, called the connection to Forest “very, very concerning” Friday.

“It’s always very concerning when someone who wants to run the state is colluding with someone with such extreme values,” said Jewell.

NCAE President Mark Jewell

Jewell also said Helton’s involvement in the reception should be alarming considering his tangled influence in the state’s growing school choice movement.

A former leader at TeamCFA schools Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy in Rutherford County and Brevard Academy in Transylvania County, Helton rose to a top position in 2014 at the network, which was founded by wealthy Oregon school choice booster John Bryan.

Bryan pushed lawmakers last year to adopt a controversial charter takeover of low-performing schools dubbed the Innovative School District. Helton is now among a group of influential school choice backers hoping to win a state contract for the takeover district. Helton’s group, calling itself Achievement for All Children, signaled their intent to apply last month.

“It’s very troubling and dangerous that the same kind of discriminatory and dangerous actions and rhetoric alleged against this church and its leaders could be forced upon a public school setting through a charter takeover scheme if this company is chosen,” Jewell said. “Public schools should be welcoming and inclusive so that all students can learn in a safe environment.”

Until recently, Helton was also a member of the state’s Charter Schools Advisory Board, a panel that recommends policies and fields charter openings and closings for the State Board of Education.

Helton stepped down from the charter board this month, reportedly to focus on his TeamCFA duties. His involvement on the charter board and a group assuming management in one troubled Charlotte charter spurred questions about a potential conflict of interest this year.

Policy Watch has reported before on questions about TeamCFA’s Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy, including complaints about the publicly-funded school’s annual diaper drive for a local anti-abortion group and lunchtime prayers.

Officials with TeamCFA did not respond Friday morning to multiple Policy Watch inquiries about the Forest City fundraiser for Forest. Meanwhile, Heather Whillier, the Forest campaign worker named on the invitation for the lieutenant governor’s reception, declined comment.