NC superintendent makes 'emergency purchase' so schools can continue using reading test as battle continues

Posted January 8, 2020 10:52 a.m. EST
Updated January 9, 2020 4:43 p.m. EST

— North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson announced late Tuesday that he made a $928,570 "emergency purchase" so schools can continue using Istation's K-3 reading test while he deals with an ongoing fight over how the state's students are tested.

Johnson emailed school staff at 10:41 p.m. Tuesday letting them know they should continue using Istation "as planned." He cited a state procurement rule for "emergency situations or pressing need" as evidence that he was allowed to make the purchase.

His announcement came hours after a Superior Court judge decided to leave the legal battle over who will assess the state's readers with the state’s Department of Information Technology.

State Board of Education members got into a tense back-and-forth with Johnson at a meeting Wednesday where they discussed the emergency contract. Johnson was out of town and participated in the meeting by phone.

"Why didn't you send us the contract before you signed it?" Board Chair Eric Davis asked, later noting that the board "didn't have a role in this procurement."

"I have the authority to sign the contract," Johnson said.

Board members expressed frustration that they couldn't get a copy of the contract Wednesday from one of the state education agency's staffers and instead had to ask DIT for a copy.

"Why didn't you email someone else [at DPI]? We could have easily gotten you the contract​," Johnson said.

Board members asked what will happen if DIT hasn't ruled on the case by March 31 when the emergency contract expires, and Johnson said he is optimistic it will be decided in his favor by then and that if it's not decided, he can extend the contract for another three months on an emergency basis.

Istation's competitor, Amplify, which lost out on the reading test contract last year, has been arguing that it should have received the contract and should be the one testing North Carolina's students, as it has in the past.

The state Department of Public Instruction, along with Istation, had petitioned the Superior Court in December to lift stays that DIT had put on that contract pending an administrative review process.

Istation had been providing its tool to the state for free in an agreement the company made with DPI after the DIT stay stalled the contract. But that agreement ended Dec. 31.

Schools statewide are in the midst of giving mid-year tests, and districts using Istation, including the Wake County Public School System, would not have been able to administer the tests.

"Our focus in Wake County schools has really been just to make sure that we're providing high-quality levels of learning and teaching for students every day, regardless of what the assessment that's being used," Wake County School Superintendent Cathy Moore said. "We've tried to stay out of the fray of the conversation and focus on kids."

DIT is expected to resolve the contract challenge, but it's not clear when the agency will make a decision or how Johnson's move will affect the case.

In a statement Wednesday, Istation President and Chief Operating Officer Ossa Fisher said her company is "honored to be able to support the students and educators of North Carolina through this new contract with The Department of Public Instruction. We are glad we were chosen to help DPI fulfill their constitutional obligation and continue the work we started earlier this academic year.”

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