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Tension flares between State Board and Superintendent Mark Johnson

Tempers got heated at the State Board of Education meeting Wednesday when Board Chair Eric Davis asked Superintendent Mark Johnson where the money came from for 100 iPads he gave to  J.H. Rose High School in Greenville recently. Those iPads were provided following a request to Johnson from a teacher at the school.

“I’ve been clear about that,” Johnson said. “I’ll remind you again, Mr. Davis.”

Johnson went on to say that the Department of Public Instruction is doing better under his leadership, operating more efficiently, and ending the year with money leftover in the superintendent’s budget.

Graham Wilson, interim director of communications for Johnson, said in an email that the superintendent’s budget is what the superintendent uses for things like staff, operations, and “discretionary expenditures in support of public education in North Carolina.”

“It was money that was not spent because of my fiscal conservative nature,” Johnson said during the Board meeting, adding, “With that, instead of sending that money back to the General Assembly, I decided I wanted to have the biggest impact I can.”

That was the same way he was able to give 200 iPads to the Ocracoke School, he said, at the request of the Hyde County Schools superintendent in response to the needs there after Hurricane Dorian

Davis responded that there are needs across the state. He asked how Board members should respond when they are asked what criteria are used for giving out the iPads.

“They can email me,” Johnson said. He later said that he is running out of the iPads that he has purchased with the money he had at his disposal. 

Johnson went on to say that this was money he didn’t spend to hold a conference or buy lunch for conference attendees, something he later accused former Superintendent June Atkinson of doing. 

Board Vice Chair Alan Duncan said that he hoped going forward there could be some coordination and equity on how items of this nature are distributed.  

“I would just suggest that from a business operations standpoint … that we get together and have some sort of operational approach,” he said. 

“I’m sure that will be open to cutting both ways,” Johnson said, adding that he hoped if the Board got input on how he spent his own discretionary funds, he could give input on how the Board spent its funds.

“It’s quite a shame that we’re sitting here having a conversation like this,” Johnson said. He said that instead, they should be celebrating being able to help schools in need.

After the discussion, Johnson walked over to reporters in the back of the room and said that in his first year as superintendent, when he didn’t have control over the funds he used for the iPads, the State Board used them for the lawsuit between the board, Johnson, and the General Assembly over new powers granted to Johnson by lawmakers.

A few minutes later, in-between presentations on unrelated topics, Johnson publicly brought up the money again, turning to Duncan and explaining to him that Duncan wasn’t on the board in 2017 and didn’t know the history.

“There were these same additional funds at the end of fiscal year 2017,” he said of the pot of money he used for the iPads. “The State Board was in charge of that. The State Board did not consult with me.”

He asked Davis if he knew how the State Board used that money. When Davis said he did not, Johnson said he would make sure the State Board got that information. 

Later in the day, Wilson said in an email that more than $380,000 of those funds were used in 2017 by the State Board for legal fees related to their lawsuit. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.