State board considering policy changes after NC superintendent signs late-night contract worth $928,000

Posted January 9, 2020 5:11 p.m. EST
Updated January 10, 2020 6:47 p.m. EST

— The State Board of Education is considering changes to how it approves contracts after North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson signed a $928,000 contract late Tuesday night without the board's knowledge.

Johnson and the board had a tense discussion Wednesday evening about the details surrounding his late-night agreement with a company called Istation, which tests K-3 students' reading skills. Johnson said he made the "emergency purchase" so schools can continue using Istation while he deals with an ongoing fight over how the state's students are tested.

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

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

At Thursday's meeting, the board voted unanimously to have one of its committees discuss some possible amendments or revisions to the contract policy, which currently requires board approval for any contract worth $1 million or more. Johnson's agreement with Istation was about $71,000 under that amount.

The board also voted to send a list of questions to Johnson about the contract with Istation, with answers expected by the board's next meeting in early February. Any revisions to the contract policy will also be discussed in February.

"What we really want to do is make sure all our questions are answered," said State Board Vice Chair Alan Duncan. "We will send a written request to get more information and any supporting documents for this contract."

On Friday, the state board's chairman sent a letter to Johnson to again note the board's "concern" that Johnson did not give advance notice of the "emergency contract." The chairman also asked Johnson to answer seven specific questions about the contract as soon as possible, but no later than Jan. 17, and to make a presentation at the board's next meeting in early February.

On Wednesday, the board's vice chair questioned Johnson about the amount of the emergency contract, saying $928,570 for three months seemed high compared with a previous contract the agency signed with the company for about $2.8 million for an entire year.

"I don't think your logic is right," Johnson said.

"My math is right," Duncan responded.

Johnson emailed school staff across the state 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.

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.

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.

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