(This story has been updated to include a statement from the N.C. Association of Educators.)
State Superintendent Mark Johnson said Wednesday that he’s prepared to sign another emergency contract with Isation if the legal issues over the state’s K-3 reading assessment tool isn’t resolved by the end of March.
“We are hopeful to have resolution to these circumstances by that time,” Johnson said. “If we don’t, we can take it up then. This is definitely not something that we view as a contract that you could get all the way through the school year with unless the process is ongoing.”
Johnson made his remarks during a telephone conference call with the State Board of Education (SBE). He was in Washington D.C., on N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) business.
Johnson inked an emergency contract with Istation late Tuesday worth $928,570 to keep the controversial assessment tool in classrooms through March.
He said he has the authority to make such decisions under a DPI procurement rule that allows an immediate, emergency purchase to prevent the cessation of an important program.
Meanwhile, critics of Johnson took to social media, many of them posting statements critical of the decision. “Istation is not an emergency,” many of them posted.
The N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) issued a staetment Thursday critical of the move.
“North Carolina educators know what a real emergency looks like, and this isn’t one,” said Mark Jewell, president of the NCAE. “The real emergency is no funding for school renovation or reconstruction. The real emergency is educators leaving the profession due to lack of pay increases. The real emergency is a disrespect for the education profession, and if Mr. Johnson really wants to help educators, he should be spending his department’s time and resources addressing these issues.”
Johnson noted that there’s an administrative hearing scheduled for Jan. 13 that could bring closure to the months-long controversy over the awarding of the $8.3 million reading assessment contract to Istation over Amplify and its mClass assessment tool.
“We are optimistic that we will get a positive ruling and that should be before March 31,” Johson said. “If it is not, then we will take it from there.”
SBE Chairman Eric Davis asked if there is a contigency plan if the ruling does not favor DPI and there’s no resolution by March.
Johnson said DPI would review its options at that time.
“Depending on what happens in the next few months, we might be in another situation where we do another emergency purchase to make sure that we finish the year at least and then look at what happens over the summer for the next year,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he is optimistic DPI will prevail because of the evidence being brought forth during the discovery process.
“We have a very strong case,” he said.
The conversation grew tense when SBE vice chairman Alan Duncan complained that the contract was signed by Johnson on behalf of the board even though its members were not involved in the process.
Davis also chimed in, questioning why Johnson didn’t send the board the contract before he signed it.
Johnson responded: “Because I have the authority to sign the contract, Mr. Davis. You were noted at the same time everyone else was that we entered into this emergency purchase agreement.”
Davis pushed back: “You signed it for the State Board of Education, so anyone who reads that thinks the State Board of Education was involved.”
Johnson said he could go back and make changes to the contract to reflect that the SBE was not involved.
Johnson’s emergency purchase came one day after a superior court judge declined to lift a stay that prevents the state from awarding Istation the state’s reading assessment contract mandated by North Carolina’s Read to Achieve law.
Judge Mary Ann Tally’s decision to not rule in the matter left the state without a tool to assess the reading levels of the state’s K-3 students.
Istation had been implementing its program in state schools for free since August but that arrangement ended in December.
It’s doubtful the case will be resolved immediately after next week’s administrative hearing, so Johnson’s temporary contract with Istation allows schools to continue assessing students’ reading levels using the Istation program.
DPI and Istation were in court Tuesday seeking relief from stays handed down by the N.C. Department of Information Technology (DIT). In August, the DIT granted Amplify a temporary stay against the use of the Istation reading assessment tool after Amplify filed a protest after losing the contract award, which it held for several years.
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.”
Tiffany Lucas, a special deputy attorney general with the N.C. Department of Justice representing DPI, said Tuesday that DPI would be unable to meet its “constitutional” and “statutory” obligations to North Carolina’s school children.
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.