State Board of Education approves emergency leave, discusses reading assessments and audit

NC Dept. of Public Instruction building
NC Dept. of Public Instruction building

RALEIGH — The state’s reading assessment tool, the Governor’s School and relief funding related to COVID-19 were just some of the items discussed at an emergency meeting of the North Carolina State Board of Education held on April 30.

The board approved of the funding measures previously discussed that relate to the Coronavirus Aid, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund has over $13.2 billion dollars available for grants to the states. It was estimated that North Carolina will receive $388,875,202 as its share of the Emergency Relief Fund.

The North Carolina Governor’s School holds a five and a half week summer program each year for gifted students on the campuses of High Point University and at Meredith College. This year’s summer program has been canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We regret we are having to do this. But for the health and safety of all students and staff it just does not feel like we have any other option,” Sherry Thomas, director of DPI’s Exceptional Children Division.

The board approved letting the 70 high school sophomores who have been accepted into the program to attend in 2021 without having to reapply.

State Board of Education approved the recommendation for COVID-19 emergency leave for school employees and for giving an additional 160 hours of emergency paid sick leave if employees cannot work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The board had already approved 168 hours of leave for April.

Discussion of the state’s K-3 diagnostic assessments went back and forth for several minutes between the board’s vice-chair, Alan Duncan, and State Superintendent Mark Johnson.

According to Johnson, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has canceled the 3-year contract with Istation that was signed in 2019. Johnson said that a new contract will be reached before the start of the 2020-21 school year in order to satisfy statutory and state Read To Achieve program requirements.

“We are facing a very different school setting next year, but we are still required by law to have a reading diagnostic,” said Johnson.

The Istation contract has been a point of tension between the superintendent and the board, with the Department of Information Technology (DIT) intervening earlier this year, essentially blocking the contract from going forward.

Duncan asked why the Istation contract was canceled before DIT issued its ruling. Johnson responded, saying that both DPI’s legal staff and DIT were consulted and it was determined the best thing to was to terminate the contract and rebid it. He added that “we are working with DIT every step of the way.”

“Next year’s school year is not going to look the same,” Johnson said. “We need to rebid this with that in mind.”

“What are the assurances of independence, which strikes me and which I suspect strikes some board members as critical at this point, given the amount of controversy that has regrettably surrounded this situation?” Duncan asked and then followed up by asking who was on the DPI procurement team.

Johnson quickly replied that Duncan “knows who they are” and proceeded to name a few.

“We will be taking whatever the directive we get from NC DIT,” said Johnson. “We all know there were unfortunate issues in the last procurement, some bad actors, lies were told. Once those people were put under oath under threat of perjury, those lies… those stories then changed.”

Duncan says it’s been such controversy and Johnson had been critical of one of the bidders, how do we get assurances that the process will be independent. Johnson reiterated that this is why they are working with DIT through every step.

“We want to make sure that this is very transparent. We are working very closely with NCDIT to make sure that this is done completely on the up and up so that we do not have this controversy again,” said Johnson.

Following the meeting, DPI sent out a newsletter that included details about the K-3 reading assessment contracts:

“Due to schools being closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, the State Board’s decision to not seek progress monitoring data for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, and the novel needs K-3 students, educators, and parents will face next school year, DPI has terminated the June 2019 Read to Achieve diagnostic tool contract and will immediately begin a new process to procure one, uniform reading diagnostic tool before the start of the 2020-21 school year.”

According to the newsletter, termination of Istation does not affect the amendment to the Istation contract approved by the board in April 2020. The update also says that districts may continue to use Istation through June 30 and that “Re-rostering is not required by districts at this time.”

Near the end of the meeting, there was discussion about the single audit report issued by the North Carolina State Auditor’s office.

“The Board is disappointed by the number of Findings and the concerns raised by those Findings,” said the board’s initial statement about the audit report.

DPI had seven findings listed in the audit, but other departments across the state had more such as 15 at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Johnson said he was frustrated with the board’s addition of a response to an audit from the State Auditor’s office. The piece of new business was added at the last minute.

“Honestly, in this time of a pandemic – of a crisis – when the department is really trying hard to work with the state board of education and really be bipartisan and put aside all of our differences,” said Johnson. “It is just another sad chapter in this ongoing, unfortunately, petty back-and-forth between the State Board of Education and the hardworking staff at the Department of Public Instruction.”

State board chair Eric Davis said it was added to “quickly respond” after the audit was released last Wednesday evening.

Johnson went on to say that it was “very unfortunate” that the board did not discuss the findings with DPI senior leadership about what actually was going on in the audit report. He added that “we are already taking measures to address those issues and why those issues actually happened.”

Single Audit Report for the State of North Carolina for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2019 and reflects federal awards to state agencies of $21.5 billion. The audit looks at “significant deficiencies and material weaknesses in internal control relating to major federal programs and instances of noncompliance.”

The total dollar figure associated with DPI in the audit comes to $18,299,643. At least one of the seven areas noted in the audit began under Johnson’s predecessor, Dr. June Atkinson.

Johnson said many of the problems were handled by the previous chief financial officer, who had been hired by the Board of Education. Johnson said he replaced that person and hired someone new to fix the problems in 2018. That replacement was Barbara Roper, who has apparently resigned since Johnson made those statements at last week’s board meeting.

The seven areas in the audit are:

Ineffective Monitoring of Title I Spending

Errors in Reported State Per Pupil Expenditures

Fiscal Monitoring Results Were Not Communicated Timely

Inadequate Award Communication

Unallowable Award Liquidation

Incomplete Fiscal Monitoring

Deficiencies in Cash Management Procedures

About A.P. Dillon 1320 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_