Today marks 100 days since I filed an official request with the Department of Public Instruction to release records of communication related to NC Superintendent Mark Johnson’s Istation contract award.
North Carolina public records law deems such records “property of the people,” and continued failure to furnish them may amount to a violation of state law.
Some background: In June, Johnson unexpectedly announced his decision to scrap mClass, a K-3 reading test which had been the primary Read to Achieve assessment tool since 2013, in favor of online reading test Istation. The move met with immediate opposition from educators and parents alike, which grew stronger when details about the $8.3 million Istation contract award began to emerge.
Johnson ignored the advice of a broad committee of professional educators, subject
matter experts, and Department of Public Instruction staff who engaged in an in-depth, months-long Request for Proposal (RFP) process before recommending North Carolina’s schools should continue using the mClass tool. Then he cancelled the RFP for reasons which were murky at best, and put together a small evaluation team almost entirely devoid of educators which would, eventually, select Istation for the contract.
When news about the process became public, the superintendent did his best to control the damage through secrecy and misinformation. In an email to the NC School Superintendent’s Association, Johnson claimed that the committee did not recommend mClass, and he added a warning that anyone with knowledge of the procurement process was bound by non-disclosure agreements “not to share any information about the process with anyone outside the team.”
Public pressure quickly mounted for the Department of Public Instruction to release records of the RFP committee’s work. In mid-July, DPI finally made public a trove of documents which confirmed the committee had indeed recommended mClass.
What those documents didn’t clarify was the “why.” Why had the superintendent been so doggedly set on Istation from the beginning? Why would he repeatedly ignore the recommendations of professionals much more knowledgeable and experienced than himself about the matter?
After all, there were signs that Johnson had selected Istation weeks before the RFP was even cancelled, and four full months prior to the recommendation of his small, handpicked team.
At the February meeting of the State Board of Education, Mark Johnson was answering questions from board members about distributing K-3 Read to Achieve iPads when he made a cryptic reference to an upcoming early elementary personalized learning announcement. From the official minutes of that meeting:
I reached out to Johnson, Director of Digital Teaching and Learning Vanessa Wrenn, and K-3 Literacy Director Tara Galloway to ask if they could identify the “exciting steps about personalized learning” that Johnson had referred to back in February. None of them responded.
However, other DPI sources told me they were not aware of any new personalized learning initiatives for the early grades involving iPads besides Istation.
In an effort to shed some light, on July 29, I filed an official request for records of communication between the Department of Public Instruction and Istation employees. From that request:
Under North Carolina Public Records Law, G.S. §132-1, I am requesting an opportunity to inspect or obtain copies of all communication including, but not limited to, emails and text messages from December 6, 2017, to the present date that meet the following
Communication between any employee of the Department of Public Instruction — including, but not limited to, Superintendent Mark Johnson (both email addresses firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com), Chloe Gossage, and Ericka Berry — and the following:
*Any and all employees or representatives of Imagination Station, also known as Istation
*Any and all employees or representatives of Shanahan Law Group
*Doug Miskew, lobbyist with Public Sector Group
*North Carolina Senator Phil Berger
As you know, the law requires that you respond to and fulfill this request “as promptly as possible.” If you expect a significant delay in responding to and fulfilling this request, please contact me with information about when I might expect copies or the ability to inspect the requested records.
If you deny any or all of this request, please cite each specific exemption you feel justifies the refusal to release the information and notify me of the appeal procedures available to me under the law.
As this request expands the scope of the public records request I filed on 7/26/19, please disregard that request in favor of this one.
Thanks in advance for your attention to this matter.
DPI’s Director of Communication Graham Wilson immediately confirmed receipt of the request. Then it was crickets.
In the ensuing months, I have reached out to inquire on progress toward fulfilling my request a number of times. Wilson has trotted out “lack of sufficient staff” as a reason for not complying with the law in a timely manner. From Wilson’s email, dated Sept. 9, 2018:
Good morning Mr. Parmenter
As NC DPI Communications has a limited staff and no permanent full-time staff person devoted to only fulfilling public records requests, I do not have an estimate at this time on when your request will be completed.
Graham H. Wilson
NC Department of Public Instruction
Interim Director of Communications
It seems obvious that communication between the Department of Public Instruction and a corporation unexpectedly awarded $8.3 million taxpayer dollars by our state superintendent should be made available to the public upon request. It also seems obvious that 100 days is more than enough time to retrieve some emails.
Finally, it seems obvious that, if Mark Johnson had nothing to hide when it came to the Istation deal, this request would have been fulfilled by now.
Unfortunately, we live in one of only a handful of states where there is no mandated time frame by which government bodies must abide when they receive public records requests. North Carolina law states that “every custodian of public records shall permit any record in the custodian’s custody to be inspected and examined at reasonable times.” In practice, that means the only recourse the public has when an agency is reluctant to turn over records is filing a lawsuit in hopes that a judge agrees that a reasonable time has elapsed.
Johnson and his communications team could well be betting that a public school teacher doesn’t have the resources to pursue that avenue.
Justin Parmenter is a teacher and K-12 advocate from Charlotte.