Editorials

Experts ignored. Educators threatened. What’s the NC Superintendent not telling us about a flawed bidding process?

There’s a lot we know about the multi-million dollar contract state Superintendent Mark Johnson awarded to a Texas company to test the reading skills of North Carolina students.

We know Johnson ignored an expert evaluation committee that recommended - twice - to award the contract to a different company.

We know Johnson was dishonest about what that expert panel concluded.

We know the company that got the contract has sent threatening letters to educators who have questioned the process and Johnson’s decision.

In other words, we know things are a mess. What we don’t know is why. Why did Johnson choose to discontinue a relationship with Amplify, which had been testing K-3 students in the thus-far disappointing Read To Achieve program? Why did Johnson ignore experts and seemingly steer the procurement process toward a different company, Texas-based Istation, which ultimately got the three-year, $8.3 million contract? And, importantly, why does the superintendent continue to be so cagey about it all?

Lawmakers should investigate before it’s too late.

If they do, they’ll find a contract process that began as it should in 2018 - with companies submitting bids and the superintendent forming a panel of education experts. In December, that panel unanimously recommended Amplify’s mClass program, which the state had been using and which calls for students to read to their teachers as part of the diagnostic process.

That vote apparently wasn’t satisfactory to Johnson, because in January the committee was brought together again. This time, according to documents, Johnson spoke to the panel about the importance of saving teachers time - a speech that could have been interpreted as an improper pitch for Istation, which is a computer-based testing program. Still, the committee again voted to recommend the mClass program.

Incredibly, that wasn’t enough. A March meeting was called, and Department of Public Instruction general counsel Jonathan Sink announced that the procurement process was canceled due to a breach of confidentiality. DPI would eventually cite the breach to negotiate directly with companies before going with Istation, the News & Observer reports.

Johnson and his office initially denied the evaluation committee had recommended mClass, a statement that turned out to be untrue. Johnson now says he can’t talk about the breach of confidentiality until he addresses a vigorous protest from Amplify. Meanwhile, Istation is getting in on the misinformation game, falsely insinuating that a member of the recommending panel had a relationship with Amplify.

Istation also has sent threatening letters to critics of the process, including Charlotte teacher Justin Parmenter, demanding that they stop making “false, misleading and defamatory” statements about the company. Parmenter’s letter, which he provided to the editorial board Wednesday, offers no specific examples of anything the company believes he’s gotten wrong.

When a company tries to bully N.C. citizens, and when legitimate questions about a flawed process accumulate, it’s time for lawmakers to step in. Johnson and Sink, who was recently named executive director of the NCGOP, need to fully and publicly account for their roles in the procurement process. Given that Johnson already has misrepresented what happened - and that he’s used state money questionably in the past - he should be ready with documentation supporting his testimony now. Lawmakers also should hear from the many experts who recommended the mClass program, because North Carolina should want its K-3 reading results to be accurate, even if they are disappointing.

Until then, the Istation contract should be put on hold.

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