Superintendent’s Istation purchase questioned at State Board meeting

State Board of Education members questioned Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson’s decision to sign a $928,000 contract purchasing a reading assessment tool from Istation earlier this week without consulting with the board.

“The question, Superintendent Johnson, is why didn’t you send us the contract before you signed it?” asked Board Chair Eric Davis at Wednesday’s board meeting. The purchase was made Tuesday under an emergency procurement rule after the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) petitioned the Wake County Superior Court to lift stays put on the department’s original contract with Istation. The contract has been legally disputed since Johnson chose Istation to test K-3 readers last summer as part of the state’s Read to Achieve literacy program.

“Because I have the authority to sign this contract, Mr. Davis,” Johnson replied. “You were noticed at the same time everyone else was that we entered into this emergency purchase agreement.”

After a Superior Court judge decided Tuesday it was not in her jurisdiction to lift the stays placed on the original contract until a Department of Information Technology (DIT) hearing starting next week leads to a decision in the case, Johnson signed the contract so schools could continue using Istation’s services for middle-of-year reading assessments.

Davis explained that Johnson’s signature was on behalf of the board.

“So anyone who reads that thinks that the State Board of Education was involved,” Davis said.

“I’m the secretary of the State Board of Education,” Johnson said. “We can go back and change that if we need to change that one line. I got the document signed last night and I signed it.”

Johnson went on to say that requests from Board staff should go through his chief of staff. “That’s how we avoid situations like this,” he said.

“Thank you for that discussion that clarifies that the State Board didn’t have a role in this emergency procurement,” Davis said.

David Stegall, DPI’s deputy state superintendent of innovation, explained to the board that Tuesday’s new contract with Istation, which runs through March 31, is a short-term solution for schools.

“This three-month period of time is just a patch until a long-term solution is established,” Stegall said.

When Board member JB Buxton asked Johnson what the plan for after that period was, Johnson said he was confident the legal fight would be resolved by the end of March.

“We do have a hearing with DIT currently scheduled on Monday,” Johnson said. “That gives DIT plenty of time to make a ruling. We’re optimistic that we’ll get a positive ruling and that should be before March 31. If it is not, we will take it from there.”

Johnson said the discovery process has led to more facts as to why the procurement process was cancelled twice, mentioning that a former unnamed DPI staffer involved in the process has “been caught in a lie.”

Davis asked Johnson what the back-up plan was if the legal resolution does not allow the continuation of the Istation contract.

“I appreciate the optimism but I think it’s important that we have a contingency plan in the event that the ruling doesn’t go in a way that allows us to continue this contract,” Davis said. “So what is the contingency plan?”

Johnson said he will appreciate Board members’ input and that another three-month emergency procurement may be necessary if legal matters are not resolved by the end of March.

Listen to the entire discussion on the purchase below.

Liz Bell is an early learning reporter for EducationNC.

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