Audit ends question on contract signed by State Board of Education chair

Audit found contract was signed ‘without required approvals’

FILE PHOTO: Eric Davis

RALEIGH — An audit published by the State Auditor Beth Wood has ended the question raised about the appropriateness of a contract signed off on by the State Board of Education chairman Eric Davis.

Wood’s audit found that Davis signed the contract “without required approvals.”

The recommendation in the audit states that the “Chairman of the State Board of Education should review and adhere to policies and procedures for contracts to ensure all proper approvals and signatures are obtained.”

In June of 2020, former State Superintendent Mark Johnson sent a letter to Wood’s office asking her to look at a 2019 contract between the State Board of Education (SBOE) and the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB).

At the heart of Johnson’s request was the assertion that Davis and now-former board member J.B. Buxton had been discussing the contract in email. The contract, worth $30,822, was finalized by the men but apparently was never brought before the board per procurement policy involving contracts of $25,000 or more.

When Johnson’s agency received the invoice to pay SREB, he formally questioned Davis about it and if protocols had been followed. According to Johnson’s letter, Davis refused to answer “basic questions.”

“Buxton was similarly disingenuous at the same meeting when asked about his involvement,” Johnson wrote to Wood. “Buxton falsely claimed, ‘I don’t know the details of the contract. I was not involved in the contract.’”

“Based on the attached public records, it appears Buxton initiated and led the contract negotiations via phone calls and his private Gmail email account rather than his public State Board email account,” wrote Johnson. “Based on those same emails, it is evident that Davis did not work alone and instead proactively sought to involve Buxton in the negotiations and closely followed Buxton’s guidance to award the contract to the vendor.”

Johnson’s letters and documentation also raised questions about actions by former State Board Attorney Eric Snider, who Johnson said “actively worked to block DPI staff’s efforts.”

Wood’s audit did not make mention of the alleged false statements, but the State Board of Education’s response included in the audit said the department accepted the findings of the audit.

In his letter, Johnson said the Department of Public Instruction investigated the contract and concluded that that Davis and Buxton had “violated state law by evading vendor-competition for state funds and that they “were not truthful in their public statements when questioned on this matter.”

Johnson also pointed out that Buxton had a conflict of interest, having worked for SREB in the past. Buxton, who had been appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper, was named president of Durham Technical Community College the same month the SREB invoice was questioned by Johnson. Davis formally announced Buxton’s departure in September 2020.

It is unclear how much money North Carolina or the SBOE has paid SREB over the years, but the figure is likely dwarfed by grants SREB has received from various foundations and other sources. One example is the nearly $69 million SREB has received since 2009 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In economic interest statements filed with the state, Buxton listed business income from consulting for both SREB and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

View Johnson’s Letter and attachments:
Supt. Johnson Letter to Auditor Beth Wood

Attachment A, Attachment B, Attachment C

About A.P. Dillon 494 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_