Emails, texts reveal NC superintendent's internal discussions about teacher rally
Posted June 14, 2018
Updated July 25, 2018
Raleigh, N.C. — As thousands of North Carolina teachers prepared to rally at the state Capitol and lobby lawmakers for more education funding last month, the state superintendent of public schools was busy making plans of his own.
In the weeks leading up to the rally, State Superintendent Mark Johnson sought advice from three public relations advisers about how to explain to the public why he didn't support the rally and wouldn't be attending. He worked to highlight ways he has supported teachers and pondered where he should spend the day on May 16 as thousands of educators descended on downtown Raleigh.
When reporters questioned him about the impending rally, Johnson stuck to his talking points, he assured his advisers, but said he expected there would be "protesters" against him because of his stance.
WRAL News reviewed nearly 100 pages of the superintendent's emails and text messages to learn more about his internal discussions about the teacher rally, which drew an estimated 20,000 people to the Capitol and closed 42 of the state's 115 school districts.
The records revealed he received both praise and criticism from the public for his decision not to attend the rally. Some thanked him for refusing to support an event that "hurts the kids and has caused undue hardship," while others viewed his refusal to participate as a "lack of support" for teachers.
The superintendent did not respond to all emails from the public. But when he did, he promised to listen, even to those he disagreed with, and shared a list of his top education priorities, including more literacy support for students and reducing over-testing.
Johnson, a Republican, also wrote about his strained relationship with the North Carolina Association of Educators, which organized the teacher rally, and said he and Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, "actually agree on a lot of issues when it comes to education."
Superintendent: 'So this is growing'
Johnson and his staff watched closely as school districts across the state began announcing they would close May 16 due to teachers' requests to take a personal day to attend the rally. Durham canceled first and was quickly followed by Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.
"So this is growing," Johnson texted his public relations advisers. "Will definitely need a statement for Monday."
Over several days, the superintendent and his team work-shopped potential comments to send to the media. Johnson's first draft, which included a reference to "partisan tactics," was soon shortened and softened.
Drew Elliot, communications director for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, was one of three advisers helping Johnson craft a statement and work on messaging about the rally. The superintendent also sought help from Graham Wilson, his community outreach coordinator, and Jonathan Felts, who chaired his transition committee after the election and occasionally helps with political messaging on a volunteer basis.
"We didn't quite know what [the May 16 event] was going be," Elliot said, explaining why it took several days for the superintendent to put out a statement. "When you have an elected official who’s a Council of State member, his words carry weight. So he doesn't like to just come off as uninformed or flippant about things."
The superintendent couldn't delay responding much longer. Reporters gathered at an event in Winston-Salem on May 7, where Johnson was announcing a new literacy initiative, were the first to question him publicly about the teacher rally.
"I do not plan to attend a protest on a school day," Johnson said, explaining that he "absolutely" supports teachers but that the protest would affect others, including school workers and parents.
After the event, he texted his advisers to let them know the press conference went "fine." He assured them that he stuck to his talking points about the rally, but said he expected some "protestors against me now." There were no prepared, written talking points, his spokesman later explained: "I think he just meant that he didn't get off on some tangent with a reporter."
The next day, Johnson released a written statement to the media and posted it on Twitter, saying teacher pay "is on the right track" in North Carolina. He expressed hope that no other school districts would close for the rally. At the time, nearly a dozen school districts had announced they were closing. In the days that followed, the number ballooned to 42.
Some social media users jumped on the superintendent's statement, claiming it was hypocritical that he participated in a school choice rally on a school day in January but would not attend the May 16 teacher rally. Isaac Ridgeway, the superintendent's special project coordinator, monitored the social media chatter and reported back to his boss it was "not all bad but misguided."
A spokesman for the superintendent called the comparison to the school choice rally "specious" and criticized the N.C. Association of Educators for using it as a talking point in some of the group's communications.
"It was a pretty weak talking point on their side," Elliot said, explaining that the school choice rally was part of a field trip for students and no schools were closed as a result. "It sounded like it was a good rhetoric, but once you took the covers off, there was nothing there … It’s not even apples and oranges. It’s like apples and chairs."
The superintendent also addressed the criticism when responding to emails and acknowledged his tense relationship with the NCAE, saying the group has "consistently refused my invitations to meet with me to discuss their concerns and uninvited me to their convention to meet with their members."
The NCAE's strained relationship with the superintendent escalated in January when the group announced it was breaking tradition and not inviting him to its annual convention, in part because of Johnson's comments about $35,000 being a good starting salary for some young teachers.
The group has also been critical of his alignment with Republican lawmakers at times, criticizing his "privatization agenda with more taxpayer money spent on private school vouchers and for-profit charter schemes like the [Innovative] School District," said NCAE President Mark Jewell.
Praise, criticism stream into superintendent's inbox
An estimated 20,000 people attended the teacher rally on May 16, according to the NCAE, but not all teachers or community members agreed with the event. The superintendent's emails showed a wide variety of reactions to the rally, including one Wake County teacher who emailed Johnson to thank him for not attending.
"I just wanted to say thank you for what you are doing for teachers. I am not protesting today because I feel this is wrong," she wrote. "[I] wanted to take time to let you know you have supporters and to keep your head up!"
Others also shared supportive messages with the superintendent or told him why they disapproved of the rally.
"It hurts the kids and has caused undue hardship on various departments having to redo the schedule and payroll," a teacher with Nash-Rocky Mount Schools wrote. "Please be aware that NCAE does not speak for every teacher, including me."
"It is a sad day when teachers start playing hookey," another person emailed. "They barely educate the children in North Carolina as it is."
Liz Noland, a Winston-Salem parent and former middle school librarian, reached out to the superintendent as well but shared a different message. She knows Johnson personally and hoped she could convince him to attend the rally.
"As superintendent of our state's schools, shouldn't one of your top priorities be hearing and addressing the concerns of teachers, the professionals who are with our children every day and have the greatest understanding of what our schools need?" she wrote, copying Johnson's wife on the email.
Noland included the names of nearly 20 other "Winston-Salem friends and parents" who supported her message. She listed their top five priorities, which included prioritizing classrooms over corporate board rooms.
Johnson responded, thanking Noland for her email and for helping him "get to Raleigh." He shared several news articles highlighting what he has done in office and asked her not to confuse his absence from the rally as a lack of support or appreciation for teachers.
He also commented on her list of priorities, saying they came from the NCAE.
"Some are actually priorities I work towards," he wrote. "Others, though, are vague, partisan statements such as 'prioritize classrooms, and not corporate board rooms.'"
Disappointed by the superintendent's response, Noland wrote back to defend her positions and bristled at his assertion that she supports "vague statements" from the NCAE.
"With regard to corporate interests in education, I have a very specific concern here, so in fact I don't consider this a vague statement," she wrote, urging Johnson to find bipartisan, evidence-based solutions.
In an email to WRAL News, Noland said she was displeased with the superintendent's "dismissive public response to the teacher’s rally" and his responses to her emails.
"I was not writing at anyone’s behest except my own," she said. "In return, I received what I felt was a defensive and pre-canned response from Mark Johnson, suggesting that my concerns and priorities were not my own, but rather that I had words placed in my mouth by the North Carolina Association of Educators. I know Mark personally, and I found this implication offensive."
"Mark campaigned for his job on being a voice for teachers and students, and bringing a fresh, bipartisan perspective to the Department of Public Instruction," Noland added. "I have yet to see that promise fulfilled."
'He was going to have people upset either way'
The day of the rally, the superintendent headed 100 miles east to meet with school leaders in Craven County near the coast – a trip that was "on the schedule for a long time," according to his spokesman.
Johnson was scheduled to hold a media event at an elementary school in Craven County that day, but the school postponed his visit due to the teacher rally. Instead, he met with the the school district's superintendent and Tabari Wallace, the newly named 2018 North Carolina Principal of the Year, whom Johnson later told staff "was a rock star."
In the days leading up to the rally, the superintendent's schedule was in flux and he debated where he should spend his time on May 16. He planned to defer to the Craven County superintendent's wishes, but if that visit didn't work out, he had another idea: What if he served as a substitute teacher for a district in need?
Johnson ultimately decided against the idea, according to his spokesman.
"The more he thought about it, he said, 'You know, I don’t want to look like I’m singling out that teacher for not being there,' because that was not the point at all of what he was trying to do," Elliot said.
Back in Raleigh, Elliot and other employees at the state Department of Public Instruction prepared for a crush of traffic and people near their downtown office building. They met with their security officer and discussed whether to allow protesters in the building.
"The superintendent wanted to make sure that, while we’re not a public building, that if teachers wanted to come in and use the restroom or get a drink from the soft drink machine, that they would be able to do that," Elliot said. "So we worked that out with our Capitol police officer that’s stationed here."
Elliot also met with staff working for Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, who requested a meeting with the superintendent to talk "messaging for May 16." Neither the superintendent nor Lewis ended up attending the meeting, according to Elliot, who declined to share what was discussed.
"I’m not going to get into internal conversations with the General Assembly," he said. "I will tell you, it ended up there were no [General Assembly] members involved and the superintendent was not present either. It was staff to staff."
On the day of the rally, Elliot walked outside the state education building, sweltering in his business suit, to survey the crowds of protesters in red T-shirts.
"I appreciate their courage in standing out there in that humidity for that long," he said. "I saw people from my church and a few other people who were just there to support public schools, and that’s always good to see."
He also saw protesters holding signs that "you probably couldn't put on the 6 o'clock news."
"So not everybody was on the same page, but most people there were great," Ellliot said. "And the legislators, [from] both parties, came out on the mall and were meeting with folks from their districts. From that aspect, it was a very good legislative day for public school teachers and allies."
Although the superintendent was 100 miles away, he likely followed what was happening by reading news articles, according to Elliot. Looking back, the superintendent believes he made the right decision to not attend the rally.
"He was going to have people upset either way," Elliot said. "You just have to do what you think is right and then explain to people why you made that decision. That’s part of being an elected official."
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: Reporting by EducationNC's Liz Bell contributed to this story. Texting graphics by Tyler Dukes and Kelly Hinchcliffe and used with permission from Emory Parker, The Post and Courier.
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