Rogue state superintendent keeps breaking the law

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

The state schools superintendent keeps breaking the law. Strangely, nobody at the General Assembly seems to care. Similarly, the capital press corps has shown no interest in holding his rogue actions to account.

Johnson’s lawbreaking centers around two rounds of iPad purchases, neither of which were conducted in accordance with state law.

Johnson’s spending spree on iPads first became news in August 2018 when he announced a $6.6 million purchase of iPads to support early grade literacy. That sounded like good news. But as Policy Watch’s Billy Ball reported, the purchase was highly unethical. The purchase came on the heels of Johnson attending an Apple-funded junket to California where he was wined and dined by Apple executives. Additionally, the no-bid contract for 24,000 iPads violated state protocol by failing to get approval from the Department of Information Technology, the agency that oversees tech services for state agencies.

But what went mostly unreported was that Johnson had no authority to spend the money he used to purchase those iPads. State law – put into place at Johnson’s request – clearly states that the money was to be distributed to school districts so that they could make purchases that best meet their needs.

Section 2.6 of S.L. 2017-197, the 2017 Budget Technical Corrections bill, says that unspent funds from the Read to Achieve program were to be distributed to school districts (“shall be allotted to local school administrative units”). In an August appearance on WRAL’s “On the Record,” Johnson claimed this provision is what gave him the authority to purchase iPads on his own and give them to districts.

At the time of Johnson’s first round of iPad purchases, the state had already provided districts with the devices necessary to carry out Read to Achieve. Despite the lack of a pressing need, most districts decided to keep the iPads sent to them. But about 10 percent of the iPads were returned to the state, where they sat in a warehouse for over a year.

One year later, Johnson decided to break the law again to buy even more iPads. After all, what’s the best way to respond to charges of quid pro quo? Even more quo, clearly.

This time, Johnson used a different source of funds to buy even more products from the company who paid for his trip to Cupertino. At the end of the 18-19 fiscal year, there was money left over from funds appropriated to support the Department of Public Instruction, a state agency. Johnson used these funds to buy 800 additional iPads. Based on nothing more but Johnson’s whim, 200 of the iPads were sent to Ocracoke School, and 100 were sent to Junius H. Rose High School in Greenville.

One problem: it’s illegal for agency heads to simply give away state property.

Article 3A of G.S. 143 requires any excess state-owned surplus property to be distributed via the State Surplus Property Agency. That agency can then sell the property or determine ways to distribute the property to tax-supported or nonprofit tax-exempt organizations. The iPads in question were clearly state-owned, as they were bought by a state agency with state funds. And they were clearly surplus, as they weren’t needed by anyone at DPI. Distribution of these iPads at the whim of a state agency head clearly falls in violation of these laws.

This might just sound like me dinging a guy for failing to dot his i’s and cross his t’s. But the laws are in place for a reason. Imagine a different scenario in whcih Johnson was giving away cash instead of iPads. Imagine if the teachers receiving these iPads were political supporters or were personal friends of the Superintendent. What if he unilaterally decided that funds appropriated to support children with disabilities would be better used on more iPads? There are many reasons why agency heads are prevented from doing what Johnson did: redirecting state funds meant for school districts and distributing state property to others based on nothing but personal whim.

It remains to be seen whether Johnson will be held accountable for breaking the law twice to purchase and distribute iPads that nobody asked for, or if he will continue to break multiple state laws without consequence.

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