News broke today that NC Department of Public Instruction Deputy Superintendent for Operations Kathryn Johnston has revealed the identity of the individual whose leak of confidential information preceded the cancellation of a K-3 reading assessment procurement earlier this year. A DPI spokesman also provided the media with sordid details which appear intended to bolster Mark Johnson’s case that he had no choice but to scuttle the process right when it was going Amplify’s way.
Johnston, who was previously a member of Governor Pat McCrory’s cabinet, filed the sworn affidavit as a part of an ongoing review of that procurement process by the Department of Information Technology. In the affidavit, Johnston says that details from a January 2019 meeting of the RFP evaluation committee were leaked by former DPI employee Abbey Whitford, who retired in May of this year. Those details later surfaced in a text message exchanged by two former DPI employees which was then provided to DPI by an anonymous whistleblower.
Johnston’s affidavit also mentions that the two texting employees, identified as Anne Evans and Carolyn Guthrie (both of whom left the department in 2017), are involved with a literacy consulting business called Habits of Literacy. The document also includes a copy of Habits of Literacy’s Articles of Organization, filed in 2017.
Johnston doesn’t explain in the affidavit what the relevance of mentioning Habits of Literacy could be, and I’ll leave that to your interpretation.
But back to the text message.
Mark Johnson has claimed the text message was an egregious enough violation of confidentiality that he had to cancel the procurement and then restart it. Keep in mind that at time this occurred, the evaluation committee had overwhelmingly recommended North Carolina schools continue using Amplify’s mClass tool. When Johnson restarted the procurement process, he assembled a new team almost entirely devoid of educators which ended up recommending Istation instead.
It’s important to understand the background and context of the text message.
On January 8, 2019, the same day the text message was sent, Superintendent Johnson called a meeting of the RFP evaluation committee. He had spent a month digesting a clear recommendation made by the team on December 4 that North Carolina go with Amplify.
According to the meeting notes, Mark Johnson began the meeting by thanking those present for their input on the K-3 screener selection. He gave a speech about the importance of freeing up more time for teachers to teach and the need to provide them with the right tools. Johnson then asked the 10 voting members present to vote for the second time–they had already recommended Amplify as finalist in their November consensus meeting–and stepped out of the room “to maintain integrity of the process.”
After the superintendent exited the room, team members wrote their choices on sticky notes, and the project manager tallied the results. Amplify again easily came out on top, with six people recommending negotiations proceed with Amplify only, three with Istation only, and one voting that negotiations continue with both companies. Pam Shue was tasked with informing Johnson of the committee’s recommendation the next day.
Here’s where the text message comes in. Later the same day, this exchange occurred, apparently based on information provided by Abbey Whitford who was present at the meeting with Mark Johnson:
Here’s a transcribed version so you don’t have to strain your eyes:
Well, just got off another call with XXX 1 hour 45 minutes all about RFP. What a mess!
Geez! What is going on?
MJ came into their voting meeting today to basically (without coming directly out and specifying) 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.
OMG! I know they were shocked!
Yep, she said they walked out of the building and several people said what just happened?
Someone, XXX should have recorded it on her phone!
She thought about it, but her phone was lying on the table in front of everyone
Oh yeah, that would have been tough…who else was in the room? Have they named a replacement for XXX?
XXX She and XXX and XXX and XXX and XXX and XXX and XXX voted for children. XXX and XXX and one of Mark’s staff voted for helping teachers. She said he talked about helping teachers and never once mentioned children and saving the teachers time.
The sad thing is, he may win his next race because he will talk about how he helped teachers!
Well that’s why he’s pushing this. Children can’t VOTE so we appease lazy ass teachers.
Two months after the text message was sent, Superintendent Mark Johnson had his General Counsel Jonathan Sink inform the team that the RFP process would be cancelled due to an unspecified confidentiality breach. We now know that was this text message.
Does the above message sound like it constituted a breach serious enough to cancel the whole process, or did it simply provide a convenient pretext at a time when Mark Johnson was desperate to swing the procurement in a different direction?
Mark Johnson’s Communications Director Graham Wilson is certainly doing everything he can to make two ex-employees blowing off steam about the superintendent’s shenanigans sound like a very big deal. Wilson told WBTV that when Whitford was confronted about the leak, resigned and turned in her computer equipment, the computer appeared to have been “professionally wiped” to remove evidence. Wilson also said the issue would likely be referred for a criminal investigation.
Note that the Department of Public Instruction is providing these sordid details to the media at the same time that the Department of Information Technology is working to determine whether DPI followed proper rules in the procurement process.
That’s curious timing indeed.