Education

Governor’s commission adopts recommendations to improve state’s public schools

Geoff Coltrane, senior education advisor in the office of Gov. Roy Cooper, discusses the commissions recommendations.

The Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education approved recommendations Thursday it hopes will help guide defendants and plaintiffs in the long-running Leandro case as they develop a plan to improve North Carolina’s public schools.

The recommendations came two days after Superior Court Judge David Lee signed a consent order in which attorneys for the defendants and plaintiffs agreed to work together to bring the state into compliance with the Leandro ruling. The ruling reaffirmed North Carolina’s constitutional duty to ensure all children have an opportunity to receive a sound basic education.

Lee gave litigants 60 days to submit a plan spelling out how they will meet short-terms goals in the WestEd report, which offers specific recommendations about how to bring North Carolina into compliance with the ruling.

The Governor’s Commission was created by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017 to develop strategies to help the state live up to its obligation to provide all school children with a quality education.

“Today was a big and important day,” said Commission Chairman Brad Wilson, the former CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC. “In the aftermath of the court order this week, the commission formerly adopted our set of recommendations that we hope provide particular and specific guidance to the parties in the litigation.”

Many of the commission’s “core values” lineup with recommendations in the WestEd report. WestEd is an independent consulting firm that was directed by Lee to perform an extensive study of North Carolina’s schools.

The commissions “core values’ include, providing schools with quality staff, teachers and principals, fair pay for educators, equity in funding so that race, ethnicity and geographic location don’t limit access to a quality education and a redesign of the state funding formula.

After 18 months of work, the commission determined that “the state’s current funding formula is not sufficient to ensure every student has access to a sound, basic education.”

WestEd also found that the state comes up short in meeting is constitutional obligation and recommended making higher need students a priority and allowing districts and schools to have more funding flexibility to address local needs.

“This really points directly to thinking about investing dollars in schools and school districts that have student populations that have greater needs, and that it would lift some of the restrictions that have been placed on existing allotment systems in North Carolina in the very near future to create some of that flexibility,” said Jason Willis, director of strategy and performance for WestEd.

Willis joined the commission’s meeting via Skype, along with Susan Mundry, WestEd’s director of learning innovations programs.

He noted that North Carolina’s funding disparity has been made worse by a decline in per pupil spending, which has decreased by about six percent since the 2009-10 school year.

Rick Glazier, a member of the commission and executive director of the N.C. Justice Center (Policy Watch is a project of the Justice Center), called on state leaders to fulfill the constitutional mandate to provide children with a sound, basic education.

“That’s why think this is so historic,” Glazier said. “We now know what the constitution demands. We have a remedy and a plan to get there, and now it’s up to everybody to fulfill the oath they took.”

Wilson said despite “good intentions” North Carolina has failed to meet its obligation to its children.

“As a state, we’re still not there,” Wilson said. “We can now depart from that point and put a plan in place to do something about it rather than arguing over whether or not the constitutional mandate is being met.”

The Leandro case began more than a quarter-century ago after five rural school districts sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise the tax revenue needed to provide students with a quality education.

In 1997, the State Supreme Court stepped in and held that every child has a right to a “sound, basic education under the state constitution.

Education

There’s movement in the Leandro case. Attorneys for defendants, plaintiffs agree to work to improve K-12 education

Superior Court Judge David Lee

The defendants and plaintiffs in the quarter-century-old Leandro case have agreed to work together to create a plan to improve K-12 education in North Carolina.

Superior Court Judge David Lee signed a consent order Monday, and gave attorneys 60 days to submit a plan that spells out how the parties intend to meet the short-term goals recommended in the West Ed report released in December. Plans to meet longer-term goals will come later.

WestEd, an independent consultant, was ordered by Lee to conduct extensive research into the state’s public education system and to bring back recommendations for improvement. Its report will serve as the framework for the attorney’s plan.

The Leandro case began more than a quarter-century ago after five rural school districts sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise the tax revenue needed to provide students with a quality education.

In 1997, the State Supreme Court stepped in and held that every child has a right to a “sound, basic education under the state constitution.

The WestEd recommendations carry a hefty price tag of more than $8 billion over the next eight years.

Lee said he’s bound by law to ensure the state lives up to its constitutional obligations.

“To me that means I’m also bound by what the state Supreme Court said back there in 1997 and that is, if somebody else doesn’t do it, the court has to do it, ill equipped though it may be.” Lee said. “I think I would be dodging my constitutional duty if I didn’t push this and do what needs to be done. I’m not afraid to do that.”

See the full story Wednesday at ncpolicywatch.com

Education, News

After a five-day hearing, a decision in Istation case is still weeks away

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

It’ll be more than five weeks before a decision is made on the fate of the controversial contract award to Istation to assess reading levels of the state’s K-3 students.

After a five-day hearing about the award, Jonathan Shaw, the general counsel for the Department of Information Technology (DIT) who presided over the hearing, granted the court reporter two weeks to transcribe recordings and attorneys three weeks to respond with proposed decisions.

On Friday, Tymica Dunn, procurement manager for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, spent several hours answering questions about the state procurement process, particularly about how the criteria for the reading assessment tool changed after a Request for Proposal (RFP) was cancelled and DPI entered directly into negotiation with Istation and Amplify.

A day earlier, Amplify CEO and co-founder Larry Berger testified that he believed the evaluation criteria for the state’s reading assessment tool was changed to disadvantage his firm.

Berger contended that during the RFP process an evaluation committee ranked Amplify above Istation and two other competitors for the lucrative state contract worth millions to the winning bidder.

Amplify CEO Larry Berger

But he said the evaluation criteria from the RFP to the negotiation phase was changed to make criteria less favorable to Amplify more important.

Cost, for example, was ranked highest in the negotiation phase but carried a lower ranking during the RFP process.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson eventually awarded Istation the contract, worth $8.3 million, Amplify’s bid was much higher, around $12 million. (Both firms eventually lowered prices during the negotiation phase but Istation’s remained low-bidder).

Amplify filed a protest after Johnson awarded Istation the contract. That led to this week’s hearing to determine whether DPI acted properly in the contract award.

Dunn was relatively new in her job as procurement manager when the reading assessment RFP fell into her lap.

DPI Procurement Manager Tymica Dunn

So, when the RFP reached the brink of cancellation after an evaluation committee formed to weigh proposals couldn’t reach consensus, Dunn asked officials with the state Department of Information Technology (DIT) for advice.

She said Pattie Bowers, director of procurement for DIT, told her and a colleague that the criteria could change in the negotiation phase because it would become a new procurement.

Mitch Armbruster, lead attorney for Amplify, said changing the criteria, and then not notifying his client about it, was unfair. Berger testified that he was never told about the changes.

One interesting development during hearing involved a discussion earlier in the week about the way DPI and State Superintendent Mark Johnson learned about an evaluation committee member’s breach of confidentiality, which played a part in the cancellation of one reading assessment RFP.

It’s been alleged that someone illegally monitored a former employee’s email that was still attached to her cell phone. The former employee received email messages discussing the procurement process from a member of the evaluation committee selected to evaluate reading diagnostic tools.

A printed copy of the exchange was slipped to DPI staffers who turned it over to Johnson.

DPI spokesman Graham Wilson confirmed in an email message that DPI is investigating the claim.

“We do not know where the text message came from,” Wilson said. “We are conducting an investigation to try to find out.” Read more

Education

State Superintendent Mark Johnson answers Department of Information Technology questions. He blames agency for emergency purchase.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson contends “inaction” by the N.C. Department of Information Technology (DIT) forced him to make an “emergency purchase” for services from Istation to allow school districts to conduct mandatory mid-year reading assessments of the state’s K-3 students.

“Due to NCDIT’s actions (blocking the diagnostic and then inaction (taking more than five months, thus far, to conduct its review), there was no reading diagnostic in place and educators were justifiably demanding a solution,” Johnson said in response to DIT questions about the emergency purchase.

Johnson’s claims were made in response to a letter the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) received from DIT on Friday warning that Johnson may have violated state law by not getting DIT approval before making the purchase.

Patti Bowers, DIT’s chief procurement officer, also warned that Chief Information Officer Eric Boyette may exercise his authority to cancel or suspend the contract because Johnson did not receive approval to make the purchase.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

Johnson was given until 10 a.m., Tuesday to answer five questions about the emergency purchase worth more than $928,000.

Click here to see Johnson’s responses to DIT’s questions.

Johnson contends he had little choice in executing the emergency contract because the state’s Read to Achieve law requires that a diagnostic tool is in place to assess reading levels of K-3 students.

He also noted that mid-year assessments are underway and that more than 500,000 tests are scheduled to be given this month.

“If there is no reading diagnostic in place, then DPI, the State Board of Education, and our public schools will be in violation of state law and an entire class of students will be deprived of benchmark statistics used to guide decisions on how to better meet their needs,” Johnson said.

An administrative hearing on the merits of the controversial $8.3 million, three-year contract award to Istation is currently underway. The hearing is scheduled to conclude on Thursday, but it’s doubtful a decision will be made this week.

DIT Chief Counsel Jonathan Shaw is the presiding hearing officer. Boyette will make the final decision in the case.

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 summer contending the contract was unfairly awarded. In August, the DIT granted Amplify a temporary stay against the use of the Istation reading assessment tool.

Shaw upheld the stay in December, contending 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.

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 the state’s signature education program, “Read to Achieve,” which was launched in 2013 to ensure every student reads at or above grade level by end of third grade.

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.

Istation has been training teachers to use the reading diagnostic tool for free. It said last month that more than 180,000 North Carolina students in grades K-3 have been assessed using its reading diagnostic tool.

 

Education

Istation attorneys charge bias after letter warning DPI that Istation contract could be reversed

Amy Jablonski testifies in Istation hearing.

Claiming bias on the part of the N.C. Department of Information (DIT), attorneys for Istation filed an emergency motion Monday asking for suspension of a hearing to determine whether the state’s K-3 reading assessment contract was awarded properly until a neutral administrative judge could be appointed to hear the case.

Monday was the first day of hearings, which are scheduled to run through Thursday. DIT General Counsel Jonathan Shaw is presiding.

“Unfortunately, the dispute over this procurement has taken a political tone from the moment the contract was lawfully awarded to Istation on June, 7, 2019,” Istation attorneys wrote. “The political dimensions have only intensified through the course of this litigation.”

The attorneys cited Friday’s letter from DIT to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction warning that State Superintendent Mark Johnson may have violated state law when he signed an emergency contract with Istation to continue to receive the firm’s services through March.

The letter was written by Patti Bowers, DIT’s chief procurement officer, who also warned that State CIO Eric Boyette may exercise his authority to cancel or suspend the contract because Johnson did not receive approval to make the purchase.

Istation attorneys said the letter is proof of the agency’s bias and demonstrates DIT’s “openly hostile and aggressive stance toward DPI and the Superintendent [Johnson].”

“The DIT memo demonstrates clear bias against the superintendent, as it threatens inter-agency action against DPI by the same official who will render the ultimate agency-level decision in the underlying case, SCIO Eric Boyette,” the attorneys said.

Kieran Shanahan, the lead attorney for Istation, said the concern about a fair hearing was directed at DIT, not Shaw.

Shaw denied the motion, saying insufficient evidence was presented to show a personal bias or other reasons to disqualify DIT from hearing the case.

“I continue to take this matter very seriously and will continue to be unbiased in my decisions and issue a fair and impartial decision,” Shaw said. Read more