Education

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.

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.

Higher Ed, News

Watchdog files complaint over NC Heritage PAC, Sons of Confederate Veterans

Citizen watchdog Bob Hall filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections Wednesday alleging the NC Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans illegally financed a political action committee that attributed donations to individuals who were not true donors and filed false campaign finance disclosure reports with the state board.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans have come under increased scrutiny since the controversial UNC Board of Governors settlement that gave the group the Silent Sam Confederate monument, $2.5 million in a non-profit trust and  a separate $74,999 payment to assure that the group would not use Confederate flags in on-campus protests.

Hall’s complaint is based partially on reporting by The Daily Tar Heel, UNC-Chapel Hill’s independent student newspaper, in which unnamed members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans group described potentially illegal actions by the group in the creation and funding of the NC Heritage PAC. In his complaint Hall says he has also spoken with members of the group, which he does not name, who have given him further details about the dealings of the group and the PAC.

The DTH Media Corporation, the non-profit that operates The Daily Tar Heel, has also sued the UNC Board of Governors over the controversial Silent Sam settlement, alleging violations of the state open meetings law.

Hall’s complaint asks for a comprehensive investigation and that the board of elections terminate the NC Heritage PAC and require state legislators, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and various political campaigns to return $28,500 given by the PAC. Among the legislators who received funds from the PAC are Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, each of whom received $2,500 from the PAC.

 

 

Read the entire complaint here.

Higher Ed, News

Western Carolina University Board of Trustees weigh in on state budget stalemate

The Western Carolina University Board of Trustees weighed in on the state budget stalemate Tuesday, passing a resolution calling on lawmakers to overturn Gov. Roy Cooper’s  veto of the budget passed by the General Assembly’s Republican majority.

The move comes after last week’s meeting of the the UNC Board of Governors where that board passed a resolution urging state lawmakers to pass the currently proposed state budget – the subject of a months’ long political struggle between Cooper, a Democrat, and the legislative Republicans.

The board of governors’ resolution called for “all boards of trustees to create and approve a concurring resolution as soon as practical.”

Western Carolina appears to be the first university whose board of trustees has done so.

The resolution was passed in a special telephone meeting of the board Tuesday afternoon. One board member was absent, two abstained and all others voted to approve the resolution.

The UNC Board of Governors is appointed by the Republican dominated state House and Senate. The board of governors in turn appoint members of the boards of trustees of the UNC system’s constituent schools. The current, 24-member board of governors is entirely composed of members who are Republican or unaffiliated. No Democrats serve on the board.

 

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