Records find more taxpayer money paid to secretive education nonprofit

$680,915 in additional payments discovered; Over $2M paid to The Innovation Project overall

Logo for The Innovation Project

RALEIGH — New records obtained by North State Journal detail more payments made by North Carolina School districts to a secretive education nonprofit, The Innovation Project (TIP). 

As of April 30, North State Journal has obtained payments made by an additional nine districts; Craven, Forsyth, Hoke, Johnston Lenoir, Lincoln, Mt. Airy, Person, and Scotland. These districts made combined payments of $680,915 to TIP during the same time span. 

North State Journal originally requested payments made to TIP from 33 public school districts in the state known to have had contact with TIP. 

The districts included 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. 

Of those 33, 21 produced payments to TIP totaling close to $1.35 million spanning the time period from 2017 through 2021. With the inclusion of the information from the nine districts, the overall total of taxpayer dollars flowing to TIP now stands at $2,048,800. 

Three of the districts, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Randolph, and Surry, reported no payments. Three more districts, Edgecombe, Warren and Wayne, continue to be non-responsive to requests for information. 

Johnston County’s payment to TIP included $164,000 in pass-through payments to the “North Carolina Education Collaborative,” which was TIP’s previous legal name. The pass-through funds were related to a $150,000 grant from the organization which gave TIP its seed money, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation (ZSR).  

Documents obtained from Johnston County Schools shows that TIP had been collecting payments through its prior name, “North Carolina Education Collaborative (NCEC).” It is unclear if any of the districts surveyed by North State Journal also made payments to TIP while it was still named NCEC, which would raise the already over $2 million total paid to the group. 

An October 2016 letter to Johnston County’s superintendent at the time, Dr. Ross Renfrow, outlined the funneling of a $150,000 ZSR grant through Johnston County Schools to NCEC. The $150,000 was to be paid by the district to NCEC in installments for “multiple initiatives” in the district. 

A Dec. 16, 2015, letter from Leslie Winner, a former executive director of ZSR, to NCEC’s co-founder Gerry Hancock detailed that the money would go towards “The Implementation Initiative of The Innovation Project.”   

Rolled up in Winner’s letter was a series of topic areas covered by the initiative, including a “Restart Schools Collaborative” that would be expanded to a “larger” restart schools network. Also on the list was a virtual academy collaborative, a homeschools initiative, a principal leadership study, a future STEM teachers scholarship, innovation classrooms, leadership services, and establishing partnerships. 

About A.P. Dillon 679 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_