NC superintendent slams 'disturbing' spending at state education agency

Posted November 6, 2017
Updated July 23, 2018

— State Superintendent Mark Johnson listened last week as State Board of Education members bemoaned the millions of dollars in recent budget cuts to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. The cuts have harmed staff and students, one board member explained, and he urged Johnson to join them in reaching out to state lawmakers to say "enough is enough."

But Johnson declined. Instead, he said in his 11 months as superintendent he has found excessive spending at the state education agency and said he hopes an upcoming $1 million audit he has commissioned will root out any other potential waste at the agency.

"In my time as state superintendent, I have found a lot of things that I’ve found disturbing about this department," Johnson said. "I will not go into the long list of them, but one little item that I can point out is our SurveyMonkey accounts."

Johnson explained that the agency uses the online tool to send out surveys to principals, teachers and others to get feedback on important topics. Instead of the agency sharing one account, Johnson said he discovered it was paying for nine accounts. SurveyMonkey plans cost anywhere from $0 for a basic account to nearly $1,200 a year for a premier plan. DPI's accounts varied in level.

"The really great professional staff (at DPI) pointed that out to me, and that’s something we’re taking care of," Johnson said.

The communications department's account alone was $800 to $900 a year, according to newly hired communications director Drew Elliot. He said the agency has stopped anyone from renewing an annually billed account and has begun consolidating them. In addition to the nine SurveyMonkey accounts, the North Carolina Virtual Public School has its own contract with Qualtrics for surveys, Elliot said.

WRAL News asked the superintendent to provide other examples of spending that he has found disturbing since he took office in January. Lindsey Wakely, the superintendent's senior policy advisor and chief legal counsel, said they did not have a pre-existing document tracking or detailing any examples, but she agreed to put together a list.

"Below are some examples of DPI’s past spending practices and costs, while facing budget cuts, that the Superintendent and his staff have identified and are seeking to address moving forward," Wakely wrote.

In addition to the nine SurveyMonkey accounts, the superintendent's office identified the following items:

  • Extensive conference-related costs, such as:
    • Paying excess rates for conference speakers
    • Large sums for meals and room rentals
    • $25,000 to sponsor World View Symposium held by UNC
  • $2,500 to sponsor one episode of a single-market television program.
  • Overhead charges paid to hire personnel through intergovernmental contracts rather than directly hiring personnel, which would cost DPI less.
  • Reversion of over $15 million in Excellent Public Schools Act funds that could have been used to support early childhood literacy.

In an emailed statement, Johnson said "the General Assembly is frustrated with inefficiencies at DPI under the State Board’s leadership, and I understand that. To avoid future cuts, we must work on building trust that we are spending our available dollars wisely – keeping our educators and students as the top priority."

The board and other education leaders "must be held accountable for the taxpayer dollars entrusted to them," he wrote. Johnson said the agency did not give educators access to almost $8 million in funds provided in fiscal years 2015 and 2016 for early childhood literacy efforts.

"That’s a total of over $15 million that went unused to support the education of our youngest students," Johnson wrote. "When I was made aware that the same thing was about to happen earlier this year, I worked with the General Assembly to salvage $5 million to procure digital devices for literacy support under NC Read to Achieve. Moving forward, I am working with DPI literacy and early learning staff to ensure that funding provided by the General Assembly for Read to Achieve is fully utilized to support the critical goal of our children becoming lifelong readers."

In an interview with WRAL News after last week's meeting, State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey praised the superintendent's efforts to find wasteful spending at the agency.

"Well, I’m glad to hear that," Cobey said, adding that he was not aware of what other waste the superintendent had found.

After WRAL News provided Cobey with the superintendent's list of spending issues, the chairman emailed a statement, saying he "applaud(s) the efficient use of appropriated funds and the elimination of any wasteful spending."

"As the administrative head of DPI, it is important that the Superintendent and his staff continuously focus on the best utilization of all appropriated funds for the benefit of the public school children of NC," Cobey wrote.

Lawmakers cut the education agency's operating funds by 6.2 percent – $3.2 million – this year and 13.9 percent – $7.3 million – next year. State board members have urged the superintendent to speak out against the cuts in recent months, but he has repeatedly refused, saying he prefers to talk with lawmakers privately and does not think it's productive "to try to negotiate through the media."

Last month, state board member Greg Alcorn asked the superintendent to address "the elephant in the room" – the budget cuts – during his monthly superintendent's message so the board could have clarity about where he stands. He declined, saying he wants his monthly report to focus on good things happening in schools.

Last week, state board member Eric Davis tried a different approach and told the superintendent of a recent conversation he had with an unnamed education leader in the General Assembly.

"I brought up these cuts and said, 'Is there anything we can do to avoid this?' And this education leader said if the state board and the state superintendent came together to the General Assembly and said, 'Enough is enough. We can’t serve our students and absorb another cut,' that would have great weight in the General Assembly," Davis said. "So I would suggest we take this education leader up on his advice."

"I would love to talk to that education leader as well," Johnson responded. "There are many, many different education leaders in the General Assembly that have vastly different opinions. I know that because I’ve been working very closely with all of them. And so, yes, that is a conversation we can have. I’d like to talk to who you talked to."

Davis tried again.

"Sure. I think this particular advice was keen on that we are together in that request, that we are unified in advocating for the department, that the department can’t absorb any more cuts. It’s important for us to publicly say that," Davis said.

"I look forward to discussing that with the education leader you discussed it with," Johnson responded.

"So are we in agreement on avoiding future cuts?" Davis asked.

The superintendent stared straight ahead, not acknowledging Davis' question, as others in the room laughed nervously at the awkward silence.

A few minutes later, Davis circled back to the discussion, this time urging all of his colleagues to work together to fight budget cuts.

"Before we can confront what we need to do in terms of equity for our students, we have to know who we have on the team that can deliver whatever our message is. We’ll never make progress on equity with a constantly diminishing staff worried about their own jobs, unable to deliver the kinds of (services) needed," he said. "I hope my colleagues will join me in saying enough is enough, we cannot absorb any more cuts."

Johnson quickly responded, telling Davis and the rest of the board about the "disturbing" spending he had discovered at the agency and said he will be relying on the upcoming $1 million outside audit to find any other potential waste.

"The operational audit might say no more cuts. It might say here are places where we can be more efficient and drive the work better and combine departments and be better, and that might also mean no cuts," Johnson said. "But I am very much looking forward to the operational review and having that information to guide these conversations and to tell us what is working and what is not."

Johnson said he hopes the audit will be ready in April. In the meantime, board member Becky Taylor said she wants everyone to be on the same page.

"I think the audit’s going to be great, because it’s going to provide efficiencies, which all agencies need," she said. "But I think we need to send the message that we are unified in supporting our DPI staff in delivering the services they need to deliver and really stop the bleeding."