N.C. School Board Wants to Put New Limits on Superintendent's Power and Spending

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The State Board of Education is trying to put new rules on Superintendent Mark Johnson following his controversial decision to award an emergency contract of more than $900,000 to use a testing program.

State board members have questioned Johnson’s decision last month to unilaterally issue a $928,570 contract for North Carolina’s elementary schools to use the Istation program. The board on Wednesday reviewed policies that would reduce the amount that Johnson can approve for contracts and would require detailed budget reports from the superintendent.

“It positions a working relationship and a clarity and a transparency and an accountability around the use of funds against the plans and goals and expectations,” state board member JB Buxton said Wednesday. “It positions and structures the right relationship.”

The changes discussed would only add a few more contracts that the board would need to vote on, according to Graham Wilson, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Instruction. Wilson said DPI staff already work with state board staff on contracts on a regular basis.

Long-Running Tension Between Superintendent and Board

Johnson and the state board have been feuding since he was elected as superintendent 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 sued but Johnson prevailed in court and reorganized DPI.

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

The state board has questioned actions by Johnson such as creating his own website and unilaterally using state money to purchase iPads to give to schools. Johnson, who is running for lieutenant governor, has accused the board of being part of the “Establishment” that is fighting change.

In the latest dispute, Amplify Education is appealing DPI’s decision to award a three-year, $8.3 million contract for Istation to test K-3 students for the Read To Achieve program.

After a judge decided not to intervene in January, Johnson approved an after-hours contract to use Istation, citing how schools needed it to conduct their testing. State board members complained about not being notified ahead of time.

Limiting the Amount the Superintendent Can Approve

The superintendent is allowed to issue contracts below $1 million without state board approval. A draft policy would reduce that limit to $500,000 unless it’s an emergency situation.

If an emergency contract is needed, the superintendent is supposed to give prior notice to the board chair. If the need is pressing and the amount is more than $500,000, then prior verbal approval from the board chair is requested if time permits.

Board vice chairman Alan Duncan, chair of the business and operations committee, said Wednesday that the policy had to be adjusted to comply with state law on emergency purchases.

Duncan said the changes were not significant in scope and nature. But Duncan had been one of the more vocal critics of the Istation emergency contract in January and had called for the contract policy to be revised.

Another draft policy would set rules for the supervision and administration of state and federal funds given to operate schools.

Provisions would include:

▪ Require the superintendent to present annually a proposed budget that the board could approve, modify or reject.
▪ Require monthly reporting of funds the General Assembly provides to the state superintendent or the superintendent’s office.
▪ Require the superintendent to report to the board the use of funding from vacant positions before the money is spent.
▪ Require the superintendent to report to the state board first before presenting budget adjustments to the state budget director.

The board could approve both policies in March.

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