After “emergency” iStation purchase, who is Superintendent Mark Johnson working for?

Last week, Policy Watch’s Greg Childress reported the latest head-scratcher from N.C.’s Department of Public Instruction, where Superintendent Mark Johnson—a very loud lame duck, sort of—ordered the “emergency” purchase of nearly $1 million from iStation to continue offering its reading assessment technology.

The purchase fell afoul of the decision-makers over at the state Department of Information Technology (DIT) again and Johnson’s tortured iStation saga became a little more tortured.

From Childress’ report:

State Superintendent Mark Johnson may have violated state policy when he failed to seek approval from the state’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) before signing an emergency contract with Istation to assess the reading levels of North Carolina’s K-3 students.

As a result, State CIO Eric Boyette may “suspend or cancel” the contract if DPI cannot adequately justify the “emergency purchase” or the “execution of the RFQ (Request for Quotes),” which took place outside of normal business hours.

Johnson made the $928,570 purchase for services late Tuesday. Istation had been implementing its reading assessment program for free, but that arrangement ended Dec. 31.

Johnson cited a state procurement policy that gives agencies the authority to make emergency purchases to prevent the cessation of an important program. Under the policy, such purchases can be made without CIO approval if they’re made after regular business hours.

DPI has been given until 10 a.m., Tuesday to answer five questions about the emergency purchase.

“In the absence of a sufficient amended justification fully responsive to this memorandum and the questions below, the Sate CIO may exercise his authority to under [state law] to cancel or suspend any information technology procurement that occurs without the state CIO’s approval,” Patti Bowers, DIT’s chief procurement officer wrote in a letter to the N.C. Department of Public of Instruction (DPI) and Tymica Dunn, DPI’s procurement manager.

Bower said the Dec. 31 expiration of a “no cost” contract between DPI and Istation did not rise to the level of an emergency.

“Mere expiration of the “no cost” Memorandum of Agreement executed August 27, 2019, does not constitute an emergency sufficient to trigger this purchase authority,” she wrote. “If every contract signed after business hours constituted an emergency, the term would be rendered meaningless.”

The emergency purchase came one day after a superior judge refused to lift a stay to allow DPI to continue to work with Istation. The judge’s ruling left North Carolina without a tool to assess reading levels of its K-3 students.

Even so, Bowers said procurement rules must be followed.

“The Office recognizes that maintaining reading comprehension testing for the state’s children is an urgent matter and that certain statutory obligations exist; however, even the continuation of a vital program does not abrogate the responsibilities of purchasing agencies and the Department of Information Technology,” Bowers wrote.

Whatever the agency feuding at play here, it’s fair to wonder who Johnson is working for with this latest shot off the bow. DIT was right to question whether Johnson’s office was stretching the meaning of “emergency” when they unilaterally moved last week.

And the grandstanding sets up continuing legal battles over the K-3 reading assessments. It’s hard to imagine, given the poisoned process thus far, that the outcome of this decision is not poisoned as well.

DPI has until Tuesday morning to answer DIT’s questions, but when Johnson’s office gets around to responding to those official questions, we’ve got another 100 or so questions, starting with: Who is this decision expected to serve?

Look for updates soon from Policy Watch.

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