Rockingham County school board members question membership dues to secretive education nonprofit

Logo for The Innovation Project

RALEIGH — At the April 18 meeting of the Rockingham County Board of Education, several members questioned membership fees paid to The Innovation Project as well as what the benefits were to the district for such a membership. 

Discussion on The Innovation Project (TIP) came up during the proposed budget request presentation made by district Chief Financial Officer Annie Ellis. Specifically, board member Bob Wyatt raised the question of why TIP membership fees local budget delineation had changed. 

“Nothing changed in terms of amount of money, but the delineation did change,” said Wyatt. “The Innovation Project membership dues for $23,475 shows up and it has never shown up before.” 

Ellis responded that when the dues began in 2017, it was “paid out of state 024 but since then we’ve moved it to local 801 and we just didn’t have that as a description line item in the budget.” 

During crosstalk on the movement of TIP’s membership dues within the budget, board member Doug Isley commented the due had previously been categorized “under legal fees.” 

Wyatt also referred to North Carolina School Association dues in a similar fashion, stating that “There was no way for me to know what the $67,000 was for. When I saw this, I said, ‘you know what, that’s a whole lotta money and I don’t know what it is’.” 

Ellis then said they had broken out the line item so the board could see what was in it. Board members followed up by asking why the district hadn’t broken it out like that before.  

Board members also asked what the benefits were from paying TIP membership dues at which point Ellis turned and deferred the question to Superintendent Rodney Shotwell. 

Shotwell said it went back to the “restart school model” and that they (TIP) turned one of their schools around so “they [the district] didn’t have to.” The superintendent then began listing everything TIP had touched, at times reading off a sheet of paper in front of him, despite TIP not being a listed agenda item.  

During his remarks, Shotwell also said they used TIP to “target” messaging to homeschool and private school student populations to “encourage them to come back to Rockingham County Public Schools.” 

“We also had exposure since 2016 to personalized learning through various natives we’ve created a personalized learning framework for our students and teachers through this,” said Shotwell, who went on to list TIP as responsible for “44 self-paced” teacher professional development modules and Math 1 curriculum for use in virtual teaching. 

Shotwell then went on to describe a grant from TIP for six teachers to get master’s degrees and national certification that was previously unknown to the board. 

“We also have the teaching scholars grants at N.C. State University and with this we’ve got six teachers that are getting a master’s degree and their National Board Certification all at the same time,” Shotwell said. “And all we’re asking in return is … they got the grant for us… these teachers are not having to pay anything to get their masters and national certification… and all we’re asking is for them to stay with us for six years. And last time I checked, we don’t have a lot of math teachers.” 

Shotwell also mentioned a “transforming early learning grant” through the Kellogg’s Foundation that covered learning centered design, personalized learning, leadership development for principals and teachers and early learning network descriptions. 

The Rockingham superintendent said TIP was engaged in a “Principal Partnership” with the educational labs which also seemed to be news to the board. The partnership apparently involves six schools voluntarily chosen to participate in a study to examine teacher lesson plans and their impact.  

Following Shotwell’s comments, Isley redirected by asking Ellis about why TIP’s dues had been listed under legal fees since 2017. 

“I believe when we first originally started paying the dues it was coded under legal fees because it originated out of two lawyers that started the project if I am correct…. two law firms. So, I think that was it,” Ellis replied while occasionally looking over at Shotwell. 

Isley objected to the board being in the dark about TIP’s payments, stating that he found the district had spent “$126,000 maybe more.” 

Public records requests conducted by North State Journal revealed Rockingham County Public Schools had written 26 checks totaling $124,412 to TIP beginning in July of 2017 and running through January of 2022. 

“The board never voted on it. It never came up to the board,” said Isley. “And if it was such a great, grandiose project, why has it not been in the book? Why has it not been highlighted in a meeting? Why has it not been brought up in gifts, grants and donations?” 

Isley said some of what Shotwell mentioned sounded good, but “it still doesn’t negate the fact that this board knew nothing about it.” He also questioned what other money was being spent that the board was unaware of.  

In a likely reference to North State Journal reporting on TIP, Isley brought up articles written on the organization and possible ties to Critical Race Theory. 

Board member Paula Rakestraw said that “in her research” she had not seen a connection between Innovation Project and Critical Race Theory and said they [board members] are “paying attention anytime someone sends that (CRT) up as a red flag and are investigating it.” 

“It doesn’t negate the fact that this board representing the people of Rockingham County did not know about this money,” Isley replied. “That, to me, is a major issue.” 

Isley initially proposed removing TIP’s dues from the local budget items but withdrew the idea when it was pointed out this was a proposed budget and Shotwell was uncertain what would happen to the programs TIP was running in the district, including the teacher scholar grants. It was noted by Ellis that action to remove the dues could happen later on in the budget approval process.  

The board eventually approved the proposed budget by a vote of four to three.

Editors note: A previous version of this article that stated the proposed budget was approved unanimously has been updated to reflect the earlier activity of moving the proposed budget forward by a vote of four to three.
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_