Emails reveal more about secretive education nonprofit’s funding, ‘racial justice’ activities

$680,915 in additional payments discovered; over $2 million in total

Logo for The Innovation Project

RALEIGH — A records request of the emails of Guilford County Superintendent Sharon Contreras has revealed more information about the money behind a secretive education nonprofit with a membership made up of superintendents from around North Carolina. The emails also describe a “racial justice” initiative as well as ties between one of Contreras’ former staffers and the source of the nonprofit’s seed money. 

Contreras was named as the new Chief Executive Officer of The Innovation Project (TIP), a secretive nonprofit with “equity” objectives, on Jan. 14 of this year.  A TIP press release stated she would depart Guilford County schools and begin with their organization in August of 2022.  On May 10, Guilford County schools named Contreras’ Deputy Superintendent Whitney Oakley as interim superintendent starting Sept. 1.  

Guilford County schools hired Contreras in 2016 on a four-year contract that paid $250,000 a year. In 2019, the district’s board of education voted six to one to extend her contract through June 30, 2022, and also gave Contreras an additional $10,000 to be put into a “qualified retirement plan.” As of 2021, Contreras was the second-highest paid public official in the Triad with a salary of $274,275, according to public records.  

While Contreras’ compensation with TIP is unknown, the group’s most recent tax filings for the period ending June 2020 show gross receipts of $1,103,561. That filing lists two paid employees; President Ann McColl with a salary of $184,485 plus additional compensation of $16, 186 and Vice President Joe Ableidinger with a salary of $139,902 and additional compensation of $20,048. 

Among the records obtained by North State Journal is an email dated Aug. 30, 2021, announcing Contreras’ chief of staff Dr. Nora Carr would be departing to take a position at the left-leaning Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation (ZSR). ZSR is the organization that gave TIP its seed money. 

In this role, Carr will assist in promoting the mission and core values of the Foundation by overseeing the implementation of All For NC: ZSR’s Framework for Grantmaking and Learning,” a July 22, 2021, ZSR press release reads.  “This includes, but is not limited to, helping Trustees identify programmatic priorities, playing leadership roles within the state of North Carolina and within the broader field of philanthropy, actively listening to and learning from people and communities across the state, and coordinating the programmatic and grantmaking operations of the Foundation.” 

“Dr. Carr will be an invaluable asset to the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation,” Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras said in the ZSR press release. “We will miss her and are grateful for the 13 years she spent in service to the students and staff of Guilford County Schools. We know that her work will now have an even greater impact across the state of North Carolina.” 

The same Aug. 30, 2021, email announcing Carr’s move to ZSR also mentions an effort in Granville County schools tied to “TIP’s Kellogg funded Early Learning Network” to “reimagine their district’s approach to AIG identification.”   

Later, in an email dated Nov. 24, 2021, TIP CEO Joe Ableidinger announced to members that TIP had been approved for a ZSR “State-level Systemic Change” grant in the amount of “$300,000 for three years.” 

Emails obtained by North State Journal also revealed that TIP partnered with the National Paideia Center (NPC), a non-profit formed in 1988 and located in Asheville, North Carolina, on “Dialogues in Racial Justice”, excerpted below:

TIP Dialogues on Racal Justice 2.0
One of the most important challenges we face right now in American culture is the deep problem of racism. Specifically, recent events have reminded us that we as educators are woefully unprepared to talk constructively about race. Based on our long history with educational dialogue, we believe that genuine conversation Is one of the key antidotes to racism. Last year, The Innovation Project and the National Paideia Center offered an original experience for educational leaders entitled “Dialogues on Racial Justice.” At the core of this experience were four virtual seminar discussions on seminal texts by important African American writers and artists: “How It Feels to be Colored Me” by Zora Neale Hurston; “The Dove” by Romare Bearden; “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes; and “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation” by John Lewis.  

NPC’s website says “The stated goal in establishing the NPC was to create an entity through which the mission of the Paideia Program would be carried on in perpetuity. That mission was—and still is—to create a public school system that was at once intellectually rigorous and fundamentally equitable, beginning first in the United States and then spreading abroad.”  

In 2020, NPC announced they had received a grant from the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) Partner Program to “expand on our “Dialogues on Racial Justice” initiative.” 

The description of NPC’s Racial Justice Dialogues says it is a “nine-session hybrid online course consisting of five asynchronous modules that participants can do on their own schedule, interspersed with four synchronous virtual seminars on four texts having to do with racial awareness and justice.” 

Additionally, the description says the primary goal is to” help participants become aware of their own attitudes toward race and racism, while simultaneously building their skills as participants in candid dialogue. A secondary goal is to provide participants with four model seminars that can be used with colleagues and/or students.” 

A related email from Ableidinger, dated Nov. 22, 2021, discussed how “the Burroughs Welcome Fund has accepted our proposal” in partnership with NPC to offer a second round of “TIP’s Dialogues on Racial Justice.” The email also outlined “TIP Dialogues on Racial Justice 2.0” that included two sessions in both January and February 2022. 

Of note on NPC’s Board is Jennifer Mangrum, the failed 2020 Democratic candidate for N.C. State Superintendent who was backed by the NCAE. Also listed on the board is an “Ellen Carr, Columbia Business School and University of North Carolina-Asheville, Asheville, North Carolina.” It is unclear if this is a relative of Contreras’ former staffer Nora Carr, but Nora does list an “Ellen Carr” as a friend on Facebook. 

NPC’s most recent 990 filing was in 2019 showing receipts of $384,869. NPC in the past received two grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation totaling close to a million dollars; one in 2013 for $659,788 and one in 2014 for $283,375. 

Since 2017, TIP has funded itself in part with taxpayer dollars in the form of membership dues which are paid for by the respective member’s school district.  

In March of this year, North State Journal uncovered dues payments to TIP totaling close to $1.35 million across 21 districts that spanned the time period from 2017 through 2021.  

As of the end of April, 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. With the inclusion of the nine districts, the overall total of taxpayer dollars flowing to TIP now stands at $2,048,800. 

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 ZSR. 

North State Journal’s repeated requests for comment and more information have gone unanswered by TIP.  

About A.P. Dillon 683 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_