Education

NC school chief has been awarding iPads. State board asks how he picks the classrooms.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson’s surprise visit to a Pitt County classroom this week to give a high school teacher 100 iPads is drawing questions from State Board of Education members.

State board members questioned Wednesday where Johnson had come up with the money for the iPads and how he’s selecting who gets them. Johnson complained that instead of celebrating the news that they’re now calling on him to create a “bureaucratic” system for handling requests.

“I do think it is quite a shame that we’re having a conversation like this instead of celebrating the fact that we got more resources to classrooms,” Johnson said during Wednesday’s state board meeting. “We’ll make more bureaucratic paperwork checklists that slow down things and make money get stuck in bureaucracy because the state board wants to.”

But state board members say they want to ensure that devices are fairly awarded.

“There ought to be some organized system about how they would be distributed such that we avoid the controversies that are inevitable as to how one got and another didn’t get,” said state board vice chairman Alan Duncan.

On Monday, Johnson visited JH Rose High School in Greenville to give 100 iPads to math teacher Tracey Moore. Johnson said that Moore had met him previously and had emailed him for help.

Johnson said that due to his “fiscal conservative nature,” savings were found in the state superintendent’s budget to buy iPads. In addition to the iPads he gave this week, Johnson said he had enough money to give 200 iPads to students at Ocracoke School in Hyde County who were displaced by Hurricane Dorian.

“Instead of sending that money back to the General Assembly, I decided I wanted to have the biggest impact that I can for as many classrooms as I can,” Johnson said. “I bought iPads.”

But state board members said they’re getting questioned by schools how the devices were awarded.

“How do we respond when the question is what criteria is used for these awards and how does my school get into the queue to be considered for these awards?” said state board chairman Eric Davis.

Johnson responded that people can contact him if they want some of the remaining iPads.

The iPads Johnson have been handing out are separate from the $6 million in devices he purchased in 2018 to give to K-3 teachers using Read To Achieve funding. After complaints were raised about how thousands of the iPads have been sitting in a warehouse, Johnson recently announced that they’d be distributed to schools so that every K-3 classroom will have at least four devices.

Before Wednesday, Johnson and the state board had dialed back on the feuding that had marked much of the start of Johnson’s tenure after he was elected in 2016. Much of the tension stemmed from how the GOP-led state legislature transferred many of the board’s powers to Johnson, a Republican.

The state board now has a Democratic majority. But Johnson clashed with the board when it had a Republican majority.

Graham Wilson, a spokesman for Johnson, said Wednesday afternoon that the superintendent’s budget is part of the state Department of Public Instruction’s administrative fund used for staff, operations and discretionary expenditures. He said it’s a practice that predates Johnson’s tenure.

“The money for these iPads came from administrative savings from the Office of the State Superintendent’s budget,” Wilson said in a statement.

“The same administrative savings in the Office of the State Superintendent’s budget from 2017 were used by the State Board to pay their legal fees in their lawsuits against the General Assembly. The State Board spent more than $380,000 on ‘Legal Payments.’”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.
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