Secretive education nonprofit receives ‘membership dues’ from schools, millions in grants 

Logo for The Innovation Project

RALEIGH — The Innovation Project, a non-profit with “equity” objectives, appears to fund itself in part with taxpayer dollars in the form of membership dues paid for by school districts across the state. 

As reported in part one of this series, it has been difficult to discern exactly what TIP does or how the group does it.  According to its website, TIP is a “nonprofit collaborative working group of North Carolina public school district superintendents created to envision the future of education and design equitable, learner-centered strategies to get there.” The mission statement for TIP echoes a similar message of bringing together “forward-thinking” school district superintendents. 

The TIP website says the organization “formally began on July 1, 2015.” Gerry Hancock and Ann McColl co-founded and created it as “a service of the Raleigh law firm, Everett Gaskins Hancock LLP.”  

In 2017, TIP became a 501(c)3 non-profit. At the time it went non-profit, Joe Ableidinger was the acting CEO while McColl is listed as “President Emeritus.” 

Ableidinger’s bio at TIP notes his prior involvement with the left-leaning NC Public School Forum, where he was formerly the Senior Director of Policy and Programs in 2014. The bio leaves out his consulting with Public Impact at the Progressive Policy Institute based in Washington, D.C. 

McColl, an attorney by trade, has past and current affiliations serving on left-leaning boards, according to the website Mapping the Left. Those affiliations include the NC Justice Center, Common Cause North Carolina, and serving as legal counsel for the teacher union affiliate the North Carolina Association of Educators. 

TIP has also received a contract totaling $8 million in federal funds through the most recent state budget. From documents uncovered by North State Journal, it would appear the N.C. State Board of Education in 2018 gave approval to a request to bypass the procurement proposal process for TIP related to obtaining Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) federal funds. 

In addition to the $8 million in federal dollars allocated to TIP by the legislature, the organization has received funding in the form of grants, but also in “membership dues” paid for by school districts.  

The TIP website notes the group and its “TIP-SCAN” initiative has received “generous support and partnership of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.” That “generous support” came in 2015 in the form of $150,000 in start-up funds. 

The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation has bankrolled the majority of progressive and left-leaning groups and non-profit organizations across the state, including BluePrint NC, a coalition of over 50 progressive groups. In 2013, Blueprint NC issued a strategy memo detailing a plan for its members to “cripple” then-governor Pat McCrory and “eviscerate” Republican elected officials. 

Other big name donors to TIP include the Belk Foundation and a $982,445 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.  

The Kellogg grant’s description says the funds are to “Enhance the academic achievement of students, Pre-K through Grade 3, by developing an inter-district network of Restart public elementary schools to redesign and transform school learning environments and by strengthening district systems of support that will enable the designs to flourish.”   

A 2018 memo authored by McColl attached to a membership dues invoice also references the Kellogg grant, as well as TIP receiving “commissioned reports” from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation via its former executive director Leslie Winner. Winner is a current member of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Commission on Access to Sound, Basic Education. 

While grants were the primary source for TIP’s initial activities, the organization instituted membership dues sometime in 2017. At least 26 district superintendents have had some participation in TIP as of 2020.  

McColl’s 2018 memo details what kind of characteristics a superintendent must have to be a TIP member, such as willingness to be innovative, take risks and push current boundaries, and “engage others in the district in TIP’s work.”  The memo states charging membership dues, which are paid by districts using taxpayer dollars, are to “cover essential operations” for TIP,” and are a “stable source for funding” year to year. 

Based on various records requests to school districts, for the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years members rates of $2,500 were billed on a monthly basis. That’s an annual total of roughly $780,000. At some point between 2018 and 2019, TIP scaled back membership dues rates and began billing dues quarterly in the amounts between $5,820 and $5,867. 

Per a memo authored by McColl that was attached to dues invoices for 2020-21, TIP’s board approved “continuing the funding formula developed last year of a $20,000 flat fee with .30/ADM and a ceiling of $30,000.”  The memo also said TIP was “exploring public-private partnerships to strengthen our impact and reduce dues.” 

North State Journal requested payments made to TIP from 33 public school districts in the state known to have had contact with TIP that include Alamance-Burlington, Asheboro City Schools, Beaufort, Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Chatham, Craven, Cumberland, Edgecombe, Forsyth, Granville, Guilford, Hoke, Johnston, Iredell-Statesville, Kannapolis, Lenoir, Lincoln, New Hanover, Moore, Mount Airy, Onslow, Person, Rockingham, Rowan-Salisbury, Scotland, Wake, Warren, Wilson and Vance. 

While 12 districts have yet to respond, the other 21 produced payments to TIP totaling close to $1.35 million. The payments overall spanned the time period from 2017 through 2021. Three districts, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Randolph, and Surry, reported no payments. 

Wake County Schools has paid TIP the most, $140,000 from 2018 through 2020. Cabarrus, Rockingham, and Vance have each paid TIP roughly $124,256 since 2017. Between 2018 to 2021, Cumberland has paid TIP $120,000. 

Current board members for TIP listed are superintendents from both large and small districts in the state and include Dr. Kim Morrison, Mount Airy City Schools (TIP Chair), Dr. Marvin Connelly, Jr., Cumberland County Schools (TIP Vice Chair), Dr. Valerie Bridges, Edgecombe County Schools (Treasurer), Dr. Alisa McLean, Granville County Schools, Ms. Cathy Moore, Wake County Schools, and Dr. Rodney Shotwell, Rockingham County Schools. 

Each of the superintendents on the board likely has a minimum of $30,000 in membership dues paid for by their district. 

On Jan. 14 of this year, TIP announced that Guilford County Superintendent Sharon Contreras had been hired to be its new CEO. Records obtained by North State Journal show that the Guilford County Public Schools district paid $30,000 to TIP in membership fees for Contreras.  

TIP has not responded to request for comment on Contreras’ hiring nor multiple requests for more information about the group’s work. 


About A.P. Dillon 660 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_