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Tech Used in Fight Over Tech? Private Texts Used As Basis to Cancel Ed Tech Contract in North Carolina Schools

Ugly fight over North Carolina education technology contract turns to allegations that the content of a former employee’s personal text messages, that had been set up to forward to a department-issued laptop before the employee retired, proves procurement interference. But the messages in question were exchanged 16 months after the employee returned the device.

Raleigh, North Carolina – Text messages, exchanged between a current and former employee of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI), have become the center of controversy involving a fight for a digital reading program contract which led to one vendor losing its contract with the state’s education department and another being awarded.

The private messages followed a vote by a DPI committee which chose New York-based Amplify and its version of the digital reading curriculum for North Carolina students. 

But the post-vote timing of the private messages – and how they were obtained in the first place – has taken the lead in the vendors’ ongoing battle to win the $8 million award with DPI.

In 2017, when the department’s former K-3 literacy director retired and returned her DPI-issued Apple laptop, she forgot to un-sync her private cell phone iMessages from the device before turning it in to the department – texts she set up to automatically forward to the device from her cell phone when she was an employee.

Nearly one and a half years later, in 2019, the former director was the recipient of text messages sent to her by a current employee who had been apprised of the happenings of a private meeting where a committee chose Amplify – over another vendor, Texas-based Istation.

But the text message exchange occurred 16 months after that former employee returned her device to the education department. And only two people – both critical of DPI State Superintendent Mark Johnson – exchanged messages about the committee’s vote, after the committee had already made its decision to select Amplify for the contract.

But somehow those messages made their way to Superintendent Johnson, who used the content of the private discussion to cancel DPI’s contract two months after the committee had selected Amplify, due to a snag he said was found during the procurement process having to do with confidentiality.

When it was decided to cancel the Amplify contract, documents show that DPI’s legal counsel, Jonathan Sink, noted the “importance of confidentiality and objectivity in an RFP procurement” and that “one of the voting members breached the confidentiality of the procurement process which jeopardized the legality of this procurement.” 

Superintendent Johnson later noted that a breach occurred which caused him to cancel the Amplify contract. It remains unclear, however, how a private text message exchange occurring after the committee vote could compromise the integrity of the contract award process. DPI wouldn’t say.

But no further details about the breach were provided until last week. It wasn’t until Amplify’s attorneys included the text messages as an exhibit during a recent legal proceeding over the contract, when the details of the breach became known.

Following the early 2019 meeting where the committee recommended Amplify for the contract award, the employee who had been informed by a committee member about the vote texted the former director, “Well, just got off another marathon call with [redacted] 1 hour 45 minutes all about RFP what a mess!”

The former director responded, “Geez what’s going on?”

The employee responded, “Mark Johnson came into their voting meeting today to basically (without coming directly out and specifying) to tell them how to vote! However, the vote did not go his way so it will be interesting to see how he gets his way on this.”

The pair then discussed the breakdown of the vote.

While the texts occurred after the committee voted for the Amplify contract, it was considered by Johnson to have breached the contract award process. And how those messages were obtained is not so clear. 

DPI did not respond to a call concerning questions about the swirling allegations that DPI allegedly harvested private text messages off of a former employee’s department-issued laptop, but DPI’s communications director told a local North Carolina television station last week that the department would be investigating. 

Laughing off accusations that he or his department surveilled the former employee’s private messages for nearly a year and a half, Johnson took to the airwaves to set the record straight.

In an iHeart 106.1FM radio interview which aired last week, Johnson scoffed at that prospect that he and DPI had been spying on a former employee’s private messages, stating, “Apparently I am now secretly surveilling bureaucrats at the Department of Public Instruction… my ‘elected squad of ninjas,’ my ‘DPI spy team.'”

“This is just more of media and the bureaucracy just trying to throw anything they can at me and hoping it sticks,” Johnson said.

Elected North Carolina’s state schools superintendent in 2016, Johnson, an attorney and former two-year teacher for Teachers for America, has publicly favored Istation, which provides digital reading and math curricula that measure student growth with computer-adaptive diagnostic and screening programs.

His affinity for the company has led to public scrutiny over his decision to scrap Amplify so quickly last year, despite a committee vote for the vendor, and in light of opposition to Istation by some teachers and advocates.

Johnson has been up front about his support for Istation, stating in a public document after he canceled the Amplify contract which led to Istation’s selection, that “Istation is the best reading diagnostic tool for North Carolina… using Istation will yield quality data that will better support success for our students, meeting students where they are and helping them grow, while also reducing the time teachers must spend testing students.”

When he said he felt that the procurement process had been compromised, it was Johnson who called for a new vote by a different committee to find the state’s approved online reading program for North Carolina students. 

That committee chose Istation, granting the company a three-year, $8.3 million contract award.

But some educators, like Justin Parmenter who teaches English Language Arts at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Schools which is overseen by Johnson, have pushed back, calling the text messages – that occurred after Amplify had already been selected – a thinly veiled attempt to choose Johnson’s favored vendor, Istation.

The texts are only the latest in a series of developments in an ongoing battle Istation has taken up to protect its contract with DPI and in which Amplify has fought to keep DPI’s original decision in place.

In July, after reporting on his blog about a paper trail leading to an about face on the digital reading program contract originally awarded to Amplify, Parmenter was served a cease-and-desist letter from an attorney for Istation.

Through last year’s re-vote, Istation won the contract award after Parmenter and others said the new smaller committee convened to undermine the previous committee’s recommendation that the award should go to Amplify for its product, mClass.

On his blog, Notes from the Chalkboard, Parmenter has chronicled the developments of the Istation/Amplify debacle, pointing out that research shared by Istation even showed that the company is an inadequate substitute for human teachers.

In response to his public pushback, Istation’s attorneys accused Parmenter of “tortuous interference” and “defamation” of their client’s work with the state’s school system.

“We have become aware that you have been making demonstrably false, misleading, and defamatory public statements about Istation, its agents, its products, and the process by which Istation was awarded the (contract)…” stated a “Cease and Desist Demand & Preservation Notice” from Shanahan Law Group on behalf of the vendor.

But the threats of litigation have not stopped Parmenter from doing what he thinks is right for North Carolina students.

Parmenter posted the text messages this month which Amplify’s attorneys unveiled as the source of the alleged committee breach and which are being used to secure the Istation contract with DPI.

According to Parmenter, he and others have filed multiple public information requests surrounding the origin of the shared private text messages and the whereabouts of the former employee’s DPI-issued device.

While Istation’s contract has been frozen due to pending litigation by Amplify, Parmenter also found that Superintendent Johnson attempted to push through a nearly $1 million “emergency” contract with the vendor this month, while bypassing the North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s (DIT) approval process and requirements for emergency-level purchases.

Documents show that Johnson signed a contract with Istation after business hours – at 10:36 pm on a Tuesday  – rather than during business hours, timing which could be deemed an “emergency” expenditure which could bypass lengthy spending approval processes.  

A state-level assessment, planned for the following day, prompted the late-night agreement with Istation, as DPI and the company await the courts to decide whether Amplify’s contract will stand.

Johnson and Istation signed the late night contract after a judge declined to intervene and unfreeze the Istation contract with DPI earlier the same day.

In a memo on the matter, DIT criticized DPI’s use of the emergency procurement method in order to compel or avoid approval of the contract with Istation, stating, “If every contract signed after business hours constituted an emergency, the term would be rendered meaningless.”
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