Explosive new Istation allegation: Department of Public Instruction spied on retired director

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Explosive new allegations were revealed by Amplify’s attorney at this week’s hearing on the Istation contract: A text message at the center of the months-long controversy was intercepted by DPI staff who used the laptop of the former Director of K-3 Literacy to monitor her personal communications for more than a year after her retirement.  

Carolyn Guthrie served as K-3 Literacy Director from December 2012 to September 2017, working the last several months of her tenure under Johnson.  Guthrie had her DPI-issued laptop synced with her personal cell phone so she could read text messages on her computer, and when she retired she apparently neglected to unsync the phone before turning her laptop in to IT.  As with any such organization, the Department of Public Instruction has a policy that devices of departing employees must be wiped clean. DPI reportedly did not follow that policy with Carolyn Guthrie’s laptop in September of 2017.

On January 8, 2019, Superintendent Mark Johnson called a meeting with the evaluation committee which was working on a recommendation for a K-3 reading assessment.  Johnson had spent a month digesting a proposal made by the team in early December that ranked Amplify Education’s mClass product an overwhelming first.

At the meeting, Johnson commented about the importance of freeing up more time for teachers to teach and the need to provide them with the right tools.  The superintendent then asked the 10 voting members present to vote for a second time 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. 

RFP-meeting-January-8-with-Mark-Johnson

Here’s where the text message comes in.  Later the same day, a text message conversation occurred between Carolyn Guthrie and another former DPI employee occurred, apparently based on information provided by a member of the evaluation committee who was present at the meeting with Mark Johnson.

Below is a transcript of that conversation:

Well, just got off another call with AW 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, AW 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 Amy J?

RB. She and RB and Cindy Dewey and Lynne Loeser and Kristy Day and Susan Laney voted for children.  Pam, Chloe 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.  

Ass

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.

Exactly!

Two months after this meeting, Johnson had his General Counsel inform the team that the procurement process would be cancelled due to an unspecified confidentiality breach and the team’s failure to achieve unanimous consensus.  Johnson then assembled a new, smaller evaluation committee which included his close advisors but was almost entirely devoid of educators or subject matter experts with relevant experience.  The new committee recommended Istation instead of mClass, and in June 2019 Johnson awarded Istation the contract.

The existence of the text message wasn’t made public until Superintendent Johnson issued his official response denying Amplify’s protest of the contract award at the end of July 2019.  In the response, Johnson said “a whistleblower provided evidence of a text message discussion detailing how committee members had voted…” and he framed this breach of confidentiality as part of his grounds for cancelling the procurement process.  

In the supporting Exhibits for Amplify Protest Decision, this redacted screenshot version of the text message was provided:

The next major development around the text message occurred in October of 2019, when Mark Johnson’s Deputy Superintendent for Operations Kathryn Johnston filed a sworn affidavit as a part of the ongoing review of the procurement process by the Department of Information Technology.  In the affidavit, Johnston revealed the identity of the individual who had leaked details of the January 8 2019 meeting as Abbey Whitford, a K-3 literacy consultant who had served on the evaluation committee, and the individuals communicating in the text message as Carolyn Guthrie and another former DPI literacy consultant, Anne Evans.  

An unredacted screenshot of the text message appeared in Johnston’s affidavit:

Kathryn-Johnston-Affidavit-Text-Message

This time Guthrie’s inbox is visible, and the screenshot displays several days of messages from January 2019, presumably from friends and family.  

The lone media report about the October affidavit repeated Mark Johnson’s July language and again referred to the text message as having been provided by “a whistleblower,” but it’s interesting to note that Kathryn Johnston’s affidavit, made under oath, does not include this language.  Rather, Johnston simply says that she has been made aware of the text message:

According to the allegations, here’s how the Department of Public Instruction really got its hands on the personal text message between two former employees:

Guthrie had Text Message Forwarding set up on her DPI-issued Apple laptop, enabling her to read and write iMessages from her personal iPhone on the computer.  When she retired in 2017 and turned the computer back in to DPI’s IT department, she forgot to log out of the feature.  

At the time of Guthrie’s departure, her laptop should have been completely purged and refreshed to prepare it for the next user as per usual procedure.  DPI allegedly neglected to follow that policy, and for at least 16 months after her retirement, unknown individuals at the Department of Public Instruction had access to Carolyn Guthrie’s personal text message communications.  

It’s impossible to say how much spying occurred during this time.  However, the screenshot–and lack of explanation for how DPI came to have Guthrie’s personal text message–lends credence to the allegation that Guthrie’s communication was being actively monitored.

If individuals at DPI were in fact intercepting the text messages of a former employee, it will be interesting to see what laws may apply to this activity.  

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.”  

Note that § 15A-287 ends with the following:

Any public officer who shall violate subsection (a) or (d) of this section or who shall knowingly violate subsection (e) of this section shall be removed from any public office he may hold and shall thereafter be ineligible to hold any public office, whether elective or appointed. 

In the event that this alleged spying does not fall under North Carolina wiretapping law, hopefully we can at least all agree that it’s incredibly unethical and shameful to knowingly monitor personal communications of former employees.  If someone at DPI was simply negligent and forgot to wipe the laptop clean, the moment it was discovered that Carolyn Guthrie’s personal text messages were still syncing to the device, it should have been purged and she should have been notified.  

Instead, the text message at the center of the Istation controversy was allegedly intercepted by someone in the department and provided to Superintendent Mark Johnson who then used it as a reason for cancelling the K-3 reading assessment procurement process at the very moment when it was going overwhelmingly in Amplify’s favor.

Regardless of whether Johnson was personally involved in conducting surveillance on a former employee, he is ultimately responsible for what happens at the Department of Public Instruction.

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5 thoughts on “Explosive new Istation allegation: Department of Public Instruction spied on retired director

  1. Why is MJ’s relationship to IStation not being questioned? What is his political connection to that company? How might his campaign benefiting from this contract?
    More importantly, why is no one speaking out about how IStation is providing no reliable/useful data. This is not a diagnostic tool as MJ keeps touting. It is not saving time. Teachers are having to administer additional assessments to get any usable data.
    All of this was a politically motivated decision, nothing about children and their learning to read.

    • Not to mention he made an emergency puchase of close to 1 million dollars to use a program for 3 months and for the sole purpose of assessing. How can that be an emergency when we already have materials that were purchased last year that could have been used until the DIT made a decision? Those materials would have provided a much more accurate assessment of the child’s reading and the strategies used. Instead I have useless information about how a child can’t spell words fast enough. Spelling which is a writing skill is being used to determine how good of a reader a child is. News Flash, children can read words before they can write them. So I am now assessing each child with the previously chosen assessment books but instead of being able to use technology to score and record their responses, I am having to use a paper and pencil running record which is more time consuming. Then I have to spend time inputting the data into the computer. So as a veteran classroom teacher with 25 years experience teaching reading I’m not quite sure how this saves me time. I’d also like to know Mark Johnson’s qualifications and teaching experience that make him feel he knows more about choosing the best reading assessment tool than actual reading teachers do! I’d like to invite him to spend a few days in my class teaching and assessing reading without cameras for photo ops. Maybe then I would have more faith in his decision but I doubt it. Maybe he can print me a nice colorful cardstock flyer with all his reading qualifications.

  2. The “consultant” for iReady on this contract is Doug Miskew, also the consultant on the wasteful ClassWallet contract. Doug Miskew is a regular contributor to Rpublican political campaigns.

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