Education, News

Report: Critics question state Superintendent Mark Johnson’s website

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

Critics are questioning why the state Department of Public Instruction’s main site shut down during Hurricane Florence and directed visitors to the personal site of Superintendent Mark Johnson, a News & Observer report said Monday.

Johnson’s taxpayer-funded site — which, in many ways, resembles a campaign site — was created weeks ago, stirring up questions from members of the State Board of Education as well.

Members also questioned Johnson’s June purchase of $6 million in iPads to support K-3 literacy, after a Policy Watch report in August uncovered a trip last October in which Apple officials “wined and dined” state leaders like Johnson and powerful K-12 budget writers in the N.C. General Assembly.

The Republican has had a contentious relationship with the board since his 2016 election, even though the board has also been piloted by GOP leaders.

From the N&O’s report:

As Hurricane Florence bore down on North Carolina this month, the state agency that oversees public schools shut down its website and referred people to a new website created by State Superintendent Mark Johnson.

Critics of Johnson are charging that it was a politically motivated decision to shut down the state website and to direct traffic to Johnson’s website, www.ncsuperintendent.com. But state education officials say they shut the state website down as a safety precaution and referred people to Johnson’s website and to the State Board of Education’s website, stateboard.ncpublicschools.gov, to make sure people had a place to go during the storm.

“We had a time-critical decision to make and I made a decision based on what my abilities were to have a page that would be up,” Drew Elliot, chief of communications for the state Department of Public Information, said in an interview.

The decision has generated a buzz on social media sites for teachers in the state.

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“Can anyone name another state agency whose website was shutdown and then rerouted to the personal website of the ‘boss?’” Stu Egan, a Forsyth County teacher and frequent critic of Johnson, wrote on his blog. “Is there any school system in the state whose website was shut down and then rerouted to the personal website of the superintendent of that school system?”

Johnson’s new website went online earlier this month, with state board members questioning why it was created instead of the superintendent using the existing DPI website (www.ncpublicschools.org).

“We are not where we need to be technology wise with the DPI website to be able to do some of the things that we can do if I just have one of my own staffers create a website,” Johnson said at the Sept. 6 state board meeting.

Johnson said one of his staffers created it for free instead of paying $15,000 to the state Department of Information Technology to develop the site. Bill Holmes, a spokesman for DIT, said that if a state agency has a large amount of data or an expedited time line that the department might recommend hiring outside contractors to assist development of a website.

Elliot said ncsuperintendent.com is a taxpayer-funded website maintained by DPI. He said it cost $174 to build the website and will cost $9.92 a year going forward to maintain it compared to $9,100 a year to maintain the state board site.

In the week Florence came ashore, DIT sent a message saying state agencies with sites potentially in the path of the hurricane should shut down all IT equipment by Wednesday.

Elliot said DPI technology staff made the decision to shut down the state website at 2 p.m. Sept. 13. With the site going down, Elliot said he asked whether they could redirect people to external websites.

“We made a decision to link to those sites so people wouldn’t get a 404 error,” Elliot said.

DPI’s website was restored Sept. 15 after it was safe for staff to return to the office in Raleigh, according to Elliott.

At least one other state agency in Raleigh, the Secretary of State’s Office, shut down its website during the storm. Holmes said he wasn’t aware of any other agencies in Raleigh that shut their websites down during the storm.

Egan charged in a post that Johnson was using Hurricane Florence to manipulate people to look at his new website.

“Ironic that the Raleigh area still has power and that every other state agency’s websites are still up and functional,” Egan wrote. “And now people will have to go to a website that masquerades as a service but actually is a campaign site that only serves one person: Mark Johnson.”

Elliot said the decision to link to the websites for Johnson and the state board was made by him and that the superintendent wasn’t notified until after it happened.

Elliot also said the new website is owned by Johnson in his official capacity as superintendent. He compared it to how taxpayer dollars are also used for Gov. Roy Cooper’s official website, governor.nc.gov.

State board members, who’ve been clashing with Johnson, will also likely be asking questions about what happened with DPI’s website.

Eric Davis, the newly elected chairman of the state board, was out of the country on a church mission trip and said last week he had not heard about the DPI site being shut down and redirecting traffic to Johnson’s site.

“I feel certain that the board will have further questions for the superintendent,” he said.

Education, News

North Carolina teacher makes Time cover in feature on underpaid teachers

Raleigh teacher NaShonda Cooke features on the September cover of Time. (Source: Time)

A North Carolina teacher is the cover star for Time magazine.

However, the educator features in a piece on American teachers’ struggles to make ends meet, The News & Observer reports.

The cover photo depicts NaShonda Cooke, a teacher at Carroll Magnet Middle School in Wake County.

Teacher pay has been on the front-burner in North Carolina politics in recent years, with more than 20,000 educators and advocates swarming Raleigh this spring to protest lagging K-12 funding under the Republican-controlled N.C. General Assembly.

From the N&O‘s story:

Cooke is on one of three different covers for the Sept. 24 issue of Time that shares the stories of various U.S. teachers talking about how hard it is to make a living. Cooke, 43, a teacher at Carroll Middle School in Raleigh, shares about how despite having 20 years of experience she skips doctor’s appointments to save on the copay and can’t afford to fix her car or save for her children’s future.

“My coworkers are just grateful that I’m speaking out in terms of teachers having a tough time financially,” Cooke said in an interview Wednesday. “Most of us still have a hard time taking care of our families.”

The Time article comes during a year where teachers around the country held marches, protests and in some cases strikes to protest working conditions.

On Wednesday May 16, 2018, the opening day of the legislative session, educators and their supports from across the state traveled to Raleigh to demand more funding for public education.

Cooke says she makes about $69,000 a year — which is higher than the $50,861 average salary for a North Carolina teacher estimated by the National Education Association. Cooke says her salary reflects all the extra duties she does at school, her extra pay from being a nationally certified teacher and how she’s grandfathered into a program that used to give extra pay to teachers who have advanced degrees.

“Before we judge that she doesn’t make enough, we need to acknowledge that there are millions of families in North Carolina that would love to make $69,000 a year and the benefits she receives,” said Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh.

Cooke said that while she earns more than many teachers, she’s also a single mother who has to use 30 percent of her salary to pay her rent in Raleigh. She also has to pay a variety of other expenses, including student loans and rising health insurance costs.

Part of the reason she left the Durham Public School System in 2017 was that the Wake County school system paid more, Cooke said.

Cooke worries about saving enough to pay for her 14-year-old daughter’s college education. She also has to deal with the needs of her 11-year-old daughter, who has autism.

“I can’t tell you how many letters I got this summer that said final notice,” Cooke said in the Time article. “It’s not about wanting a pay raise or extra income. It’s just about wanting a livable wage.”

The Time article also comes as state Republican legislators have trumpeted five consecutive years of teacher pay raises as part of this year’s election campaign.

“While there is always more work to be done, the facts speak for themselves — teacher pay has increased dramatically under Republican leadership,” Bill D’Elia, a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, said in a statement. “We thank Ms. Cooke for her service but it’s important that we put this in perspective; when Democrats last controlled the General Assembly, thousands of state-funded teaching positions were eliminated, teachers were furloughed and their pay was frozen.

“We’ve passed five consecutive teacher pay raises, giving teachers an average $8,700 — or nearly 20 percent — increase to their base salary since 2014, with close to half of all public school teachers in the state receiving at least a $10,000 pay raise. Even according to the national teacher union’s own rankings, North Carolina ranked #2 in the U.S. for fastest rising teacher pay from 2016 to 2017.”

But Cooke said the recent raises still leave teachers making less than what they did before the recession of the late 2000s, when adjusted for inflation.

Cooke is getting the national attention after a life of being what she calls an advocate for higher teacher pay and education spending. She spoke last year in Durham as part of “A Day Without A Woman” national protests and urged fellow educators to take part in the May 16 mass teacher protest in Raleigh.

agriculture, Environment, News

After Florence, the “unequal distribution of catastrophe” in North Carolina

A flooded neighborhood in Jacksonville. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Since Hurricane Florence dropped more than 30 inches of rain on parts of North Carolina, Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg has been dutifully tracking the environmental catastrophes — many of them, quite simply, predictable in nature.

But if you missed it, Duke University law professor Jedediah Purdy authored an illuminating take Tuesday in The New Yorker on the environmental injustices made apparent by the storm, and its deleterious effect on agricultural operations in the state.

From The New Yorker:

It is unsettling, and maybe emblematic of many American lives today, to perch safely but uneasily on the edge of catastrophe. Rainfall in eastern North Carolina passed thirty inches during Hurricane Florence, cutting off the coastal city of Wilmington from road access, and this week the state’s rivers are swelling as they return the water to the Atlantic. The Neuse River is menacing Goldsboro, home of the Reverend William Barber’s congregation, and the Cape Fear River is swamping Fayetteville, near Fort Bragg. The storm has killed at least thirty-two people. It left my neighborhood in Durham, a hundred and forty miles inland, damp and ruffled by breezes. Warm humidity streaked the outside of air-conditioned windows with condensed water, and people stayed indoors watching weather updates.

But we prepared here—overprepared, even. The city of Durham shuttered its non-emergency offices last Thursday afternoon, and public schools closed throughout the Research Triangle. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke, where I teach, shut down classes for nearly a week and urged students to evacuate. Big-box stores were stripped of water, batteries, and other emergency supplies, and gas stations were empty. At home, we stockpiled jugs of water, dried fruit and canned beans, candles.

Disaster planning requires an accounting of everyday dependencies. How far can we drive if there is no gas for sale? Without electricity, how many hours of light do we have? If the stores aren’t restocked, when will we run out of food? Once our phones aren’t working, how many phone numbers do we actually know? How many of the people we know live within walking distance? As we pull the plug on one vital system after another, tasks that seemed straightforward—making a cup of coffee, or washing clothes—turn out to be a note in a technological symphony.

A recent study by the geologist Jan Zalasiewicz and twenty-four co-authors estimated the total weight of human infrastructure—buildings, roads, vehicles, intensely cultivated cropland—at thirty trillion tons, roughly three thousand tons for every human being. In 2013, Peter Haff, a Duke University earth scientist, reckoned that without this infrastructure, which he calls “the technosphere,” human population “would quickly decline toward its Stone Age base of no more than ten million.” You can relax that pessimism by an order of magnitude and still conclude that most of us would not survive outside our artificial habitat. We would be what Shakespeare’s King Lear calls “unaccommodated man”: a “poor, bare, forked animal.”

A “natural disaster,” then, is at least half non-natural, the product of a natural event and the infrastructure that it floods, shakes, or ignites. In North Carolina, much of that infrastructure is agricultural: over the past thirty years, the eastern part of the state has become the slaughterhouse of the East Coast. At least nine million pigs live here, mostly in “confined animal feeding operations” that contain thousands of animals apiece. Read more

Environment, News, Trump Administration

Report: With North Carolina reeling from Hurricane Florence, Trump to visit Wednesday

Donald Trump speaking

President Donald Trump

President Donald Trump will visit North Carolina Wednesday in the wake of Hurricane Florence’s devastating impact last week, multiple media outlets are reporting.

It wasn’t clear what areas Trump will tour, but the president’s arrival comes with swollen rivers across the state expected to crest in the coming days, forcing thousands out of their homes after the storm dumped double-digit rain amounts.

The president has had a tortured history with disaster relief, given his ongoing bickering with critics over the federal government’s failures in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria last year.

From CNBC:

Trump will visit areas affected by the hurricane, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday, though it wasn’t immediately clear which specific spots are on the president’s list. Sanders told CNBC that more details would be forthcoming.

Some North Carolina residents have begun to return to the towns they fled in advance of the storm. Florence had strengthened to a Category 4 storm with wind speeds as high as 140 miles per hour before slowing down by the time it made landfall late last week.

But days after the wind and rain had subsided, water levels continued to rise in some areas of the state, putting more homes and lives at risk.

The hurricane has claimed at least 32 lives, officials said, including 25 in North Carolina. Some measures of the storm’s damage are estimated at $2.5 billion in total insured losses alone.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Monday that “catastrophic flooding and tornadoes are still claiming lives and property.”

Trump has used his Twitter account to focus mainly on the hurricane in recent days, largely avoiding other issues such as special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and the upcoming midterm elections.

Education, News

Test scores in North Carolina public schools decline

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

This time of year is always a nervous one for North Carolina public school leaders.

With state testing results going public, K-12 officials will talk about their successes and their struggles. This week may focus on the struggles, though, with new testing results showing declines on state exams.

From The News & Observer:

Fewer North Carolina public school students passed state exams this year, with the decline increasing over time for students in third grade despite a state push to get young children reading at grade level.

New state results from the 2017-18 school year released Wednesday also show that the state’s 12-year streak of rising high school graduation rates has ended. But state leaders say the graduation results can’t be compared to previous years because of changes in how the rates are now calculated.

State education leaders pointed to positives Wednesday about how the majority of schools are meeting growth expectations on state exams and that the number of low-performing schools has dropped.

But the new test results also showed several areas of decline.

“We have some things to celebrate,” State Superintendent Mark Johnson said at a news conference Wednesday. “We also have things that will make us pause and have concerns.”

Go to https://bit.ly/2wGEwP6 for a Charlotte Observer/News & Observer searchable database of results for every North Carolina public school. Results are also available at http://www.ncpublicschools.org/accountability/reporting/ on the state’s website.

One example of a decline is how the percentage of students passing the state reading, math and science exams dropped to 58.8 percent in the 2017-18 school year. It was 59.2 percent the previous school year.

Even when the drop is small, Johnson said it still reflects that a lot of students declined. He said state test results seem to be plateauing.

“When we dig into the data, we see that some results go up, some results go down,” Johnson said. “But consistently the trend is that we are not where we want to be for students.”

An area where the scores seem to be going in reverse is performance of third-grade students on the state’s end-of-grade reading exam. State legislators created the Read To Achieve program in 2012 with the goal of trying to get students proficient in reading by the end of third grade.

The passing rate on the third-grade reading exams is now at 55.9 percent. It was at 60.2 percent in the 2013-14 school year and 57.8 percent in the 2016-17 school year.

Johnson said he hopes that efforts he’s pushed for such as reallocating state Read To Achieve funding to buy supplies and iPads for K-3 literacy teachers and reducing the amount of required assessments will improve performance.

It’s worth debating whether devices alone will make a difference. Recent research suggests the jury’s still out. 

Johnson’s iPad purchase has also been mired in controversy. As Policy Watch reported last week, the purchase came months after the superintendent and influential state budget leaders had their expenses, including dinner and lodging, paid for by Apple reps at their Silicon Valley headquarters.

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