Deputy Superintendent at center of Istation saga had DPI surveillance victim’s former laptop at time of spying

After months of stalling, stonewalling, and misinforming, the Department of Public Instruction has finally released computer inventory logs which may solve the mystery at the center of the Istation controversy: Which department employee improperly monitored a retired director’s personal text messages?

Obtained through a public records request, the logs show the MacBook Air in question was assigned to Deputy Superintendent Pamela Shue at the time the text message was intercepted.

Background:

K-3 Literacy Director Carolyn Guthrie retired from DPI in September 2017.  According to sworn testimony she gave in the Istation case, upon her departure she neglected to log her DPI-issued MacBook Air laptop out of her personal iCloud account.  

Unbeknownst to Guthrie, her personal text messages continued to sync to the laptop long after her retirement.

One of those text messages, sent in January 2019, included information about North Carolina’s K-3 reading assessment procurement process.  The message was somehow obtained by Superintendent Mark Johnson and used to cancel the procurement on the grounds of a confidentiality breach at a moment when it was very much going mClass’s way. 

He later awarded an $8.3 million contract to Istation.

Guthrie was made aware in February 2019 that DPI was in possession of her personal text messages. She pulled up her FindMy app to see what devices were active on it.

The screenshot Carolyn Guthrie took in February 2019 shows her DPI-issued MacBook Air still syncing to her personal iCloud account more than 17 months after she retired from the department. The map clearly indicates the active device with inventory number k2268 is housed inside the Department of Public Instruction building.

DPI’s failed misinformation campaign:

North Carolina’s statute on interception of electronic communication, § 15A-287, is a “one party consent” law.  It states that, without the consent of at least one person involved in the communication, it is a Class H felony if a person “Willfully intercepts, endeavors to intercept, or procures any other person to intercept or endeavor to intercept, any wire, oral, or electronic communication.”

When allegations first surfaced that someone under DPI’s roof had engaged in potentially criminal conduct at the center of the procurement process, Superintendent Mark Johnson and his staff initially attempted to mock them into oblivion.

Johnson joked in a radio interview about his “elite squad of ninjas” and “DPI spy team,” and Communications Director Graham Wilson derisively referred to the charges as “blogger conspiracies.”

In his sworn December 2019 deposition in the Istation case, the superintendent claimed he had no knowledge of anyone at the Department of Public Instruction monitoring computers for text messages. He testified that a paper copy of the screenshot was slid under the office door of Deputy Superintendent Pam Shue by an anonymous whistleblower, and that DPI was investigating the matter.

Two months later, DPI denied multiple public records requests which sought computer inventory logs showing who was assigned Guthrie’s laptop after her retirement. In the denial, Graham Wilson claimed those records were confidential personnel files and could not be released.

In April, the results of the Department of Public Instruction investigation were released to the public in the form of a borderline unintelligible word salad. The findings attempted to cast blame on Guthrie herself, focused on an irrelevant desktop computer, and didn’t mention the MacBook Air at all. They also explained a supervisor had “informed DPI leadership that the screenshot had been slipped under her door by an unknown individual.” That supervisor would presumably be Pam Shue.

DPI complies with records request:

The computer inventory spreadsheet was finally turned over by DPI last week. (You can access that document here.)

Department of Public Instruction records show that Carolyn Guthrie’s MacBook Air was turned in when Guthrie retired. Then in January 2018 the laptop was reassigned to Pam Shue, and it stayed assigned to her until June 2019.

The laptop’s inventory number k2268 matches the number of the device Guthrie saw actively syncing to her account in February 2019.

So, to make a long story short, the evidence indicates that Pam Shue was in possession of a laptop which was logged into Carolyn Guthrie’s personal iCloud account when Guthrie’s text message was intercepted.

More about Pam Shue:

Pam Shue began working at the Department of Public Instruction in November 2017, about two months after Carolyn Guthrie retired. Her title was Deputy Superintendent for Early Education. The K-3 Literacy team reported to her, and she reported directly to Superintendent Mark Johnson.

Shue was business manager of the K-3 reading assessment procurement which began in 2018. Records show she supported awarding Istation the contract both before and after the procurement was cancelled. She left DPI in June 2019, just weeks after Mark Johnson announced the Istation contract award.

Pam Shue was never deposed in the Istation case, so has never testified under oath as to how she obtained Carolyn Guthrie’s text message or anything else about the procurement controversy.

She did not respond to a request for comment about this story.

Questions that remain:

If I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Shue, here’s what I would ask her:

Was the story about an anonymous whistleblower concocted in order to cover up surveillance of Carolyn Guthrie’s personal communication?

If so, what was Superintendent Mark Johnson’s involvement?

Superintendent Mark Johnson appears poised to again ignore educator input on K-3 reading test

In a tense discussion with the State Board today over the future of K-3 reading assessment in North Carolina, a feisty Superintendent Mark Johnson repeatedly defended the controversial 2019 procurement process that led to his awarding an $8.3 million contract to Istation.  

That process saw Johnson cancel the procurement after a broad committee of professional educators, subject matter experts, and DPI staff overwhelmingly recommended the state stick with the mClass tool that requires children to read to a human teacher. 

Johnson then assembled a much smaller team made up primarily of noneducators who chose the online reading test instead.

In the latest developments, Johnson unexpectedly cancelled the 2019 contract last week before the Department of Information Technology could issue a ruling on its legality.  At today’s meeting, the superintendent told a skeptical board he’d be proceeding with a new procurement with the intention of having an assessment in place for school year 2020-21.

Though uncertainty lies ahead, there were some interesting clues dropped during the discussion about where the procurement could be going.  

Summarizing the current situation for the board at the outset of the meeting, State Board General Counsel Eric Snider quoted a related DPI memo from earlier this week which said “Current classroom-based instructional practices are insufficient for a post-pandemic education system.”

Johnson also said during the meeting that rebidding the contract is “something that is the right thing to do right now given how much school has changed under these very trying times.”

These references to the pandemic and shifts in educational approaches could be groundwork for an argument that students should have their reading skills assessed using computers rather than by an actual teacher.

Teachers know best:

Multiple individuals participating in today’s meeting urged Superintendent Johnson to seek feedback from educators in making the important decision about how North Carolina will test K-3 students on reading.

North Carolina Teacher of the Year Mariah Morris offered to assist along those lines, saying “I would just like to very respectfully ask that during the procurement process that an advisory team of K-3 teachers are involved in the process, and if you need any assistance at any level on gathering such a team I’d be more than happy to help with that process, because teachers are so passionate and excited to help our students with the K-3 literacy piece.”  Johnson did not respond to the offer.

State Board Member JB Buxton reiterated the importance of involving classroom-level experts in decisions that heavily impact their students:  “I think it is an utmost priority for us that we get, to Ms. Morris’s good point, strong participation from influential and credible district voices that are seen as evaluating and recommending, and I think this will be important for us to move on from this chapter.  It will be important for the vendor that is chosen to be able to do so with the comfort that they have strong buy in and backing from all parties.”  

Johnson reminded everyone that “there were outside voices on the panel for the Read to Achieve diagnostic tool.”  (Those were the voices Johnson ignored that overwhelmingly recommended mClass)  He added that the law requires voting members of the evaluation committee must be DPI employees.

Finally, State Board Member Jill Camnitz also urged Johnson to accept teacher input, saying, “It seems to me that we’ve got a great opportunity here to take Ms. Morris up on her offer, and what we’ve got out there right now are teachers that have used two quite different systems.  Out of that experience I think will come some very wise counsel.”  Again Johnson was silent.

Audio of that portion of the meeting is here:

Johnson is right that the law calls for an evaluation panel “composed of persons employed within the Department of Public Instruction.”  

But any superintendent who values the insight and experience of professional educators would do two things:  

1)  Ensure the evaluation panel includes voting members who have taught and assessed K-3 reading, and 

2)  Establish processes for the work of that panel to be informed by current K-3 classroom teachers.

If Johnson doesn’t do either of those two things, it could be an indication that he doesn’t want to hear what actual teachers think would be the best way to assess our youngest readers.

Incidentally, here’s the panel that selected Istation for Mark Johnson last year:

  • Erika Berry, DPI Policy Advisor
  • Nathan Craver, Digital Teaching and Learning Consultant
  • Thakur Karkee, Psychometrician
  • Pam Shue, Deputy Superintendent of Early Education
  • Julien Alhour, Director–Architecture, Integration & Quality Assurance
  • Tymica Dunn, Purchasing Section Chief
  • Chloe Gossage, Chief Strategy Officer
  • Melissa Strong, Attorney
  • Srierekha Viswanathan, Project Manager

Some other important points from today’s meeting:

Johnson essentially punted on a really crucial question from Vice Chair Alan Duncan regarding how Johnson could assure the perception of fairness and independence when the superintendent himself has made “derogatory comments about at least one of the potential bidders.”  (That would be Amplify)

Duncan also raised the point that the State Board of Education would need to approve any contract issued by DPI, inferring the board might be unlikely to approve a contract if there appeared to again be significant concerns about the procurement process.  Johnson immediately commented that the process was governed by the state statute that called for the procurement.

That exchange could be foreshadowing of a scenario where Johnson again awards the contract to Istation, then essentially dares the State Board to refuse to approve it and risk being blamed for students not having a reading assessment in place for the 2020-21 school year.

The statute Johnson is hiding behind was in the 2017 budget bill and mandates a vendor be selected by March 1, 2018, so it’s worth asking whether that law has passed its shelf life anyway.

The wild card in all of this is that the Department of Information Technology could still issue a ruling on whether Johnson’s 2019 contract award was legal.  DIT could then make its own contract award or lay out stipulations for a new RFP process.  Those potential outcomes could explain why Johnson cancelled the contract on his own last week in hopes of staying in the driver’s seat despite what an absolute mess the process has been under his leadership.

Stay tuned for more drama in this never-ending saga.

Complete audio of the K-3 reading assessment discussion from today’s meeting is below:

Lawsuit challenges constitutionality of controversial North Carolina municipal charter law

A lawsuit filed today by the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the law firm Tin Fulton challenges the constitutionality of legislation authorizing the creation of town charter schools in four towns in Mecklenburg County.

In 2018 HB 514 authorized the largely white towns of Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville and Cornelius to use city money to create their own charter schools and admit their own residents while turning away others from more diverse neighboring parts of the county.  

The suit, filed in Wake County Superior Court, claims the law violates the state’s constitutional guarantees of a uniform system of free public education, and equal protection under the law.

You can read the complaint below:

2020-04-30-HB514-Complaint

NC Senate bill would require districts to show how they’ll achieve same growth through remote learning that they would in school

A bill filed in the North Carolina Senate today would give school districts until June 30 to come up with a plan for how they’ll ensure remote instruction results in the same learning growth as teaching that occurs at school during school year 2020/21.

It’s hard to articulate how out of touch with reality that expectation is.

North Carolina’s educators are doing the best we can to teach our students in the midst of a global pandemic. As time passes we will continue to find ways to make remote teaching and learning more effective. However, what we’re already seeing is there are an untold number of factors that we have absolutely no control over.

Coming right out of the gate and setting an impossibly high bar sends the wrong message to our state’s educators at a time of crisis when collaboration is crucial.

What we need most from state legislators as we navigate these uncharted waters is the resources to ensure that all of our students have access to the education that is their right.

You can read the entire draft bill below. The section referenced is 5.11(a) point 9.

COVID-19-Recovery-Act

A monumental question: What forces are shaping North Carolina’s K-12 social studies standards revisions?

by Angie Scioli and Justin Parmenter

A Red4EdNC special report on revisions to North Carolina’s K-12 social studies standards has detailed multiple cases where proposed changes “appear reflective of political, as opposed to academic, motives.” 

Those changes include a push to teach 3rd graders that the state’s monuments should be valued as well as removal of references to climate change and institutional discrimination from high school courses.

Background on revision process:

In April 2019, the North Carolina State Board of Education approved a request from the Department of Public Instruction’s Division of Standards, Curriculum, and Instruction to review and revise K-12 social studies standards.

DPI then assembled teams of educators from across the state to write an initial draft of the new standards.  (Interestingly, those educators are not paid for their work and are required to sign confidentiality agreements, which reduces transparency in the process.)

Draft 1 of the new standards was revealed, and the public was given an opportunity to provide feedback.

Timeline reversal surprisingly tone deaf:

When the COVID-19 crisis started, teacher volunteers writing the new social studies standards–while also making a Herculean effort to quickly transition instruction to new online learning platforms–were informed by DPI staff that the work was being postponed.  Many were relieved by that news. 

Shortly thereafter, someone overrode the postponement decision.  Teachers were told the standards revision project would continue after all, and they were given only a few days to complete edits.  

This quick about-face raises questions about who higher up in the chain of command might be interested in fast-tracking these expensive and disruptive revisions (teacher training will be needed for a new high school graduation requirement, for example) in the midst of a pandemic and why. 

The decision to proceed with revising the standards also demonstrates a lack of sensitivity about the challenges facing our educators and schools. Districts aren’t even sure how current courses will be delivered next year given social distancing requirements. How it is a priority right now to further complicate the K-12 education landscape by changing graduation requirements and adding new courses that require training and instructional resource purchases? 

It would be interesting to know whose priorities are being served by that decision and hear them articulate their rationale.

In early April, Draft 2 of the standards was posted, and public feedback on that draft was collected through April 27.

Most recent changes suggest political motives:

Between Draft 1 and Draft 2 of the standards, significant changes have been made at multiple grade levels which appear to be politically motivated.

Perhaps the most unexpected change is one which would require third graders to be taught that North Carolina’s monuments should be valued by their communities.

Here’s the evolution of that learning objective:

Current objective 3.H.1.3Exemplify the ideas that were significant in the development of local communities and regions.

Draft 1 of new 3.H.1.3:  Categorize ideas and contributions that different groups made in terms of influence on local history.

Draft 2 of new 3.H.1.3Summarize how monuments and memorials represent historical events and people that are valued by a community.

The newest version stands out like a sore thumb, especially in light of recent monument controversies in North Carolina, including the 2017 removal of Durham’s Confederate Soldiers monument in the wake of a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA and the toppling of the Silent Sam monument on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill in 2018.

Influential North Carolina policymakers such as Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest–who also happens to sit on the NC State Board of Education–have spoken out in defense of such monuments.  

In a 2015 radio interview about North Carolina’s monuments, Forest said, “If we whitewashed every offense that was out there to every American, there would be not much left out in this world.”  He later referred to protestors of the state’s Confederate monuments as “communist agitators.”

Additional eyebrow-raising changes to the North Carolina social studies standards have been proposed at the high school level.  

In World History, references to sustainability, climate change, natural resources and consumption of resources, and empathy have been removed.  

In Civic Literacy, an objective which read, “Determine the effects of institutional discrimination on cultural and national identity” has vanished.  Another which would have required students to learn about the idea of how governments maintain the welfare of the public and protection of citizens is also now gone.

It would be interesting to know whose feedback these revisions were based upon.  Are changes designed to ensure our children value North Carolina’s monuments but reduce their exposure to content about climate change and discrimination really indicative of what professional educators thought was best for students?  Or are influential individuals with access to the process reshaping North Carolina education to match their particular worldview? 

If there are shadowy forces at work, it’s worth noting that North Carolina State Board of Education Policy SCOS-12 mandates a revision process which is research-based, data-driven and built on feedback from stakeholders.  

For its part, the Department of Public Instruction has made a public pledge to “carry out a clear and open process in accordance to state law, state board policy, and agency processes.”  Instead we have teachers writing standards who are bound by confidentiality agreements, a pathway to making public comments which is buried deep within the bowels of DPI’s website, and data from public feedback that isn’t even made available to the public.  None of this process appears clear or open, and the lack of transparency leaves interested parties to come up with their own theories about who’s really in charge of what North Carolina students will learn in social studies.

Anyone with knowledge of (1) who issued the directive to fast-track these changes against conventional wisdom, (2) standards revisions that are occurring in violation of state board policy, or (3) content about monuments being added to objective 3.H.1.3 is encouraged to contact Angie Scioli at angelascioli@gmail.com or Justin Parmenter at justinparmenter1@gmail.com

According to DPI, at least one more draft and feedback cycle will occur before the finalized social studies standards are submitted to the State Board of Education for approval.  When Draft 3 is released, it’s going to be very important for the public–educators and non-educators alike–to take advantage of what will probably be their last opportunity to weigh in.

Hold that happy dance: Don’t sleep on Mark Johnson and the possible return of Istation

Yesterday the Department of Public Instruction released a statement that the agency was cancelling the controversial 2019 contract that Superintendent Mark Johnson awarded to Istation to provide NC’s K-3 reading assessment.

In the statement, DPI explained a new procurement would begin with the goal of having a K-3 reading assessment in place for the start of the 2020-21 school year, now just weeks away:

In light of the Governor’s announcement that students will not return to schools for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, the State Board’s decision to not seek progress monitoring data for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, and the novel needs K-3 students, educators, and parents will face next school year, DPI has terminated the June 2019 Read to Achieve diagnostic tool contract and will immediately begin a new process to procure one, uniform reading diagnostic tool before the start of the 2020-21 school year.  

Considering the way that contract was originally awarded and the feedback NC teachers gave about the tool, this is good news.

But it’s not quite time to celebrate.

We are still waiting for the Department of Information Technology to rule on the legality of that June 2019 contract award. DIT confirmed yesterday that the hearing officer still has not issued a decision.

Given all the evidence that has surfaced, it’s fairly safe to speculate that there are two most likely courses of action for DIT: a) Invalidate the contract award and instruct DPI to start the procurement over. b) Invalidate the contract award and give the contract to Amplify. The second scenario is less likely if you look at the hands-off approach that DIT has taken thus far.

So if we’re more or less waiting for DIT to instruct DPI to start the procurement over, why would Mark Johnson pre-empt that decision by cancelling the Istation contract himself? Why would he not wait and see how it plays out?

By restarting the procurement himself, Johnson can set the terms of how that process works (as long as he follows the requirements set by the General Assembly, which he would say he did last time). He can ignore, or try to ignore, whatever ruling DIT issues on the original contract, saying “What contract are you even talking about? I already cancelled that one.”

It’s entirely possible that Johnson could be planning to fast track a new procurement and attempt to award the contract to Istation all over again.

After all, if we know anything about Mark Johnson it’s that he loves him some Istation.

What the public needs to do is continue to hold Superintendent Mark Johnson accountable for following lawful processes in awarding contracts and making good decisions for our children that are based on input from the true experts on reading: North Carolina educators.

We also need to look to the Department of Information Technology and the State Board of Education to ensure the proper checks and balances on Johnson’s power in this matter.

NC Superintendent Mark Johnson abandons fight on Istation, pulls the plug on controversial contract


Update: Here are some additional thoughts on the surprise DPI move to consider:

Hold that happy dance
————————————————————
The Department of Public Instruction has announced the cancellation of the $8.3 million contract awarded by Superintendent Mark Johnson to Istation for North Carolina’s K-3 reading assessment.

The bombshell was buried at the end of a press release that went out this afternoon:

In light of the Governor’s announcement that students will not return to schools for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, the State Board’s decision to not seek progress monitoring data for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, and the novel needs K-3 students, educators, and parents will face next school year, DPI has terminated the June 2019 Read to Achieve diagnostic tool contract and will immediately begin a new process to procure one, uniform reading diagnostic tool before the start of the 2020-21 school year.  

Some background: Last June, Mark Johnson unexpectedly announced his decision to scrap mClass, a K-3 reading test which had been the primary Read to Achieve assessment tool since 2013, in favor of online reading test Istation. 

The move met with immediate opposition from educators and parents alike.  Pushback grew stronger when details about the process which ended with the multi-million dollar Istation contract award began to emerge.

It turned out that Johnson had ignored the advice of a broad committee of professional educators, subject matter experts, and Department of Public Instruction staff who engaged in an in-depth, months-long Request for Proposal (RFP) process before recommending North Carolina’s schools should continue using the mClass tool. 

Then he cancelled the RFP for murky reasons (which included a text message allegedly obtained by snooping on the personal communications of a retired DPI director) and assembled a small evaluation team almost entirely devoid of educators which would, eventually, select Istation for the contract.

After protests were lodged by Amplify, the parent company of mClass, the Department of Information Technology looked into the procurement process to determine whether or not it was conducted properly.  DIT held a week-long hearing in January to hear arguments from both sides and was expected to issue its decision soon.

It is surprising that DPI would announce its own cancellation of the contract rather than waiting for an official decision to be made by the Department of Information Technology, and it’s important to keep Mark Johnson’s history of Istation shenanigans in mind here.

DPI now has just weeks to successfully complete a new procurement process in order to have a K-3 reading assessment in place for the 2020-21 school year as mandated by North Carolina’s Read to Achieve law.

It’s unclear how that process will work or what Mark Johnson’s role in it will be given how spectacularly he bungled the last one.





James Ford: Our grading system is inherently inequitable, and it’s time to imagine something different

photo credit: Alvin C. Jacobs

North Carolina State Board of Education member James Ford made the following comments at today’s meeting to explain his opposition to the grading policy the board was considering, urging his colleagues to “disrupt what has heretofore been a really inherently inequitable system and begin to imagine something that’s different.”

You can listen to audio of those comments below:

Transcript:

I’m certain I’ll probably be in the minority here that I won’t be able to approve this particular policy, but I did want to take a couple moments to offer some comments and qualify my position.

I recently read an article in the Washington Post about how COVID-19 has laid bare the inequities of the public education system, and it used the framing of renowned education researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings, who instead of talking about “achievement gaps” she coined the phrase “the education debt” that speaks to how society owes students from historically marginalized groups because they’ve been left behind as a result of, you know, historical, economic, political policy decisions.

It’s important to acknowledge that on our best day in North Carolina our public schools don’t serve all of our students well, and I think we all can acknowledge that and recognize that. What the virus has done though, in the midst of this global emergency, in the way that it’s disrupted our education, it’s not only exposed these inequities but it’s exacerbated them.

In other words, those who were already disadvantaged by the former arrangement are even more so now. We’ve done our best as a board, I have no doubt, to try to account for these inherent flaws in our system in such a strained environment. I don’t doubt that, I know that for a fact. We’ve had to respond really quickly and definitively in unprecedented times and a dynamic environment, and this is uncharted territory. And it’s precisely because it’s uncharted I can’t support the idea of either grades or GPAs for students at this moment in time. 

Whatever the functional utility of the grading system is, whatever it’s designed to tell us about the mastery of content, it’s been so compromised now that it invalidates the very meaning of it. What does it mean to score an A or B, in this atmosphere? What is the usefulness of that metric, when we haven’t even completed the course content?

It’s hard for me to gather, I know we have a system where students are justifiably extrinsically motivated by a grade or quality points as ways of gaining competitive advantage and demonstrating rigor and college entry, etc. But in a global pandemic, where all students do not even have access to an equitable learning environment, I cannot in good conscience give a supposed choice to receive a letter grade because due to circumstances beyond students’ control, it’s not a real choice at all.

The very spirit of equity demands that we run all of our decisions through a set of screens or questions.

Some examples of that would be:

Who most benefits from this proposal and why?
Who does not benefit and why?
What might be the unintended consequences for marginalized groups?

When I do that, it’s clear to me that while it would certainly benefit students who are already positioned to perform well with the resources and opportunities for learning, those without the same level of access would be further disadvantaged.

And it may appear as if it’s a punishment or a harm to those already enrolled in the courses, AP, IB, CCP, who have done the work to get here for sure. But I’d submit there’s a difference between actual harm and just not being helped, in a radically unstable environment.

So I’d further just like to challenge us to think altogether differently about the culture of grades and the system of infatuation with GPAs that has been facilitated throughout the years and throughout the decades.

If ever there was a time to truly focus on intrinsic motivation of students and on the mastery of content versus symbols of merit it must be now.

I don’t think we’re going to be returning to any semblance of normal, and the truth is, for most working adults, we don’t get grades anyway. We get performance evaluations–we talked about that as part of our conversation today–to analyze our development against a set of competencies.

It’s obvious I have a bias here in that I don’t believe in the whole notion of grades to begin with. But I’ll conclude by saying this:  

I realize that in all likelihood this measure’s going to pass, and I don’t question the motivation of any of my colleagues here on the board. I know we’re all trying to do the best we can given the circumstances. And also, to all those who have written in and communicated your thoughts, I appreciate you. That’s exactly what you are supposed to do in this environment.

But I want to push us ideologically to disrupt what has heretofore been a really inherently inequitable system and begin to imagine something that’s different. That really reliably measures what students know and focuses on content mastery. Because we do owe an educational debt, and so long as we continue to push down this path, it feels to me like we’re just running up the balance on the backs of those who are already on the margins.

And I hope we can begin to center those students in the ways we make decisions going forward.

Here’s why the NC Department of Public Instruction’s recent investigation into spying allegations is a complete joke

Right at close of business last Friday, the Department of Public Instruction released the results of its investigation into how the department came to have the personal text messages of retired K-3 Literacy Director Carolyn Guthrie.  

But a number of gaping holes in DPI’s findings call into question how serious the department actually is about getting to the truth. 

First, here’s a little background:  

Carolyn Guthrie retired from DPI in September 2017.  According to sworn testimony she gave in the Istation case, upon her departure she neglected to log her two DPI-issued Apple devices–a MacBook Air laptop and an iMac desktop computer–out of her personal iCloud account.  

Unbeknownst to Guthrie, her personal text messages continued to sync to those devices long after her retirement.

One of those text messages, sent in January 2019, included confidential information about North Carolina’s K-3 reading assessment procurement process.  The message was used by Superintendent Mark Johnson to cancel the procurement on the grounds of a confidentiality breach at a moment when it was very much going mClass’s way.  He later awarded an $8.3 million contract to Istation.  

The entire procurement process is under investigation by the Department of Information Technology (DIT), and DIT is expected to rule soon on whether or not it will be thrown out.

In his own sworn deposition, Johnson claimed the text message was obtained when an unknown whistleblower slid a paper copy of it under the door of Deputy Superintendent Pam Shue’s door.  (Shue was responsible for supervising the K-3 Literacy department until her departure in summer of 2019.) Johnson said in his deposition that DPI was investigating the origin of the text message.

Fast forward to last Friday afternoon, when DPI released the following statement about the results of its investigation:

A Statement from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction

The agency has completed its investigation into a former employee’s allegations that her personal text messages were accessed via a DPI-issued device.  The former employee admitted that she connected her DPI-issued devices to her personal text messaging accounts in violation of the state’s acceptable use and internet security policy.  The investigation concluded that after the former employee retired in October 2017, her former agency-issued desktop computer remained connected to her personal accounts and was transferred to her successor.  This individual was a social friend of the former employee and viewed the text messages as a source of entertainment and information on personal matters. The individual shared the former employee’s text messages with at least one other career employee in the K-3 literacy division.  

Upon that individual’s retirement, the desktop was transferred to the career K-3 literacy employee.  That employee continued to view the former employee’s personal text messages and admitted to providing a screenshot of a text message conversation to her supervisor in February 2019.  The supervisor informed DPI leadership that the screenshot had been slipped under her door by an unknown individual. Shortly thereafter, the employee disconnected the desktop from the text messaging account.  DPI has examined each device that was assigned to the former employee and has determined that they are no longer connected to any personal email or messaging accounts. The investigation concluded that knowledge of access to the personal account was limited to the K-3 literacy office. 

There are some problems with DPI’s findings which deserve attention.

When Carolyn Guthrie retired on September 1, 2017, she was succeeded by an interim director who has no relevance to this matter whatsoever because she retired in July 2018.  The text message which used to cancel the procurement was sent and intercepted in January 2019.  

The DPI statement claims Guthrie’s desktop computer was eventually transferred to an employee in K-3 Literacy who admitted to viewing Guthrie’s personal text messages and screenshotting the one that was used as evidence of a confidentiality breach serious enough to warrant cancelling the RFP process.  

It doesn’t mention whether this employee still works at DPI.  Nor does it explain whether there were any repercussions for that individual knowingly violating North Carolina’s wiretapping statute, which could constitute a class H felony.

But there’s another obvious flaw with DPI’s findings that calls the veracity of the whole investigation into question.  Notice that the statement only mentions a desktop computer and makes no reference at all to Guthrie’s MacBook Air laptop.

Guthrie was made aware that someone at the Department of Public Instruction was reading her personal text messages in February 2019.  She quickly pulled up her FindMy app and saw that one computer physically located at DPI was still actively syncing to her personal iCloud account.  

Here’s a closeup of her screenshot:

That’s not a desktop computer, it’s a MacBook.  The two icons are completely different on the FindMy app, as you can easily see in this example:

So in the wake of the Department of Public Instruction’s investigation, the most crucial question remains unanswered:  Who had Carolyn Guthrie’s former laptop in January 2019?  

Numerous public records requests have been filed with DPI for computer inventory logs that would answer that question.  Director of Communications Graham Wilson denied those requests, claiming the logs were confidential personnel records and could not be released. 

DPI’s findings engage in some really gross victim blaming in the name of standing up for state policy on “acceptable use and internet security.”  However, they don’t explain why DPI’s own policy on wiping computers of departing employees to remove “any personal information you may have left on the machine such as passwords” wasn’t followed with either of Ms. Guthrie’s computers.

(You can read that policy here).

But perhaps the most troubling thing about the DPI statement is simply the dismissive manner in which the department acknowledges that one of its employees engaged in potentially criminal behavior while on the clock.  

Those actions deserve to be taken seriously–especially when the information obtained through surveillance was used to cancel a multimillion dollar contract.

Charter school teacher suspended after expressing concerns about being forced to report to work during a deadly pandemic

According to WRAL, a teacher at Franklin County charter school Youngsville Academy was placed on administrative leave today, just one day after news broke that Youngsville teachers were being required to come to school despite the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis that has resulted in a statewide stay-at-home order by Governor Cooper.

Yesterday WRAL revealed that teachers were expected to report back to the building on April 9.

Communication from school administration noted that educational models other schools were following were not working and suggested that any staff members feeling anxiety about coming to work should consult mental health services.

Today the teacher who had reached out to WRAL was placed on paid administrative leave while an investigation is made into contract violations for “disparaging the school” and not following protocol for reporting concerns.

Youngsville Academy founder and principal Larry Henson’s email to the teacher warns that the investigation could result in termination. (Read the WRAL piece to see the actual email). But as WRAL notes, it’s illegal for employers to terminate employees for reporting unsafe working conditions.

Any employee who believes their employer has retaliated against them for exercising their rights under whistleblower protection laws can file an official complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration by completing this online form or by calling 1-800-321-OSHA.