The North Carolina Ethics Commission is pursuing an investigation of complaints that Superintendent Mark Johnson violated the State Ethics Act by using his department’s resources to advance his own private interest.
Multiple complaints were filed earlier this month after Johnson sent hundreds of thousands of emails and text messages to public school families and employees trumpeting his opposition to Common Core.
The timing of the campaign raised eyebrows since Johnson had been almost silent on Common Core throughout his tenure as superintendent, choosing to launch his vocal opposition just as voting began in the primary for Lieutenant Governor–an office he is seeking.
The contact information used by Johnson appeared to have been taken from Power School, a statewide database which includes data collected by individual schools that is also accessible by the Department of Public Instruction.
Those who filed complaints have begun hearing from the Ethics Commission’s executive director Perry Newson, who is collecting background information on details such as which sections of the Ethics Act are alleged to have been violated and what expectations of confidentiality come with data stored in Power School.
NC Senate Education Chair Rick Horner has also voiced his concerns about Mark Johnson’s use of privileged contact information for campaign purposes after Horner’s wife, a public school teacher, received an unsolicited campaign text message from the superintendent.
In a public Facebook post on Thursday, Senator Horner said it appeared “at best both poor judgement and a misuse of the information if collected by our public schools.”
In our highly polarized political times, it’s good to see a member of Mark Johnson’s own party publicly expressing concerns about unethical campaign practices.
New evidence has emerged which substantiates allegations by former Department of Public Instruction director Carolyn Guthrie that her personal text messages were illegally monitored by someone on Superintendent Mark Johnson’s staff more than a year after her retirement in 2017.
A screenshot of Guthrie’s FindMy app taken in February of 2019 shows a MacBook Air with a device name of cguthrie-k2268 actively syncing to her personal iCloud account. An IT employee at DPI confirmed that this device name is consistent with the naming scheme the Department of Public Instruction uses for employee computers.
DPI has refused to turn over documents which could help shed light on exactly who was monitoring Guthrie’s communications without her knowledge. But deposition transcripts and related exhibits obtained through a public records request to the Department of Information Technology reveal important new details about the case.
The information calls into question Superintendent Mark Johnson’s sworn testimony about how DPI obtained the text message that was used to cancel the K-3 reading assessment procurement after an evaluation committee had recommended Amplify’s mClass tool. That cancellation paved the way for Johnson to make his controversial contract award to Istation.
Carolyn Guthrie served as DPI’s K-3 Literacy Director from December 2012 until September 2017. While in that role, she purchased MacBook Air laptops for everyone on the team including herself, which was somewhat unusual in an agency dominated by Windows devices.
Guthrie set up text message forwarding from her personal iPhone to the laptop for convenience. When she retired, she neglected to log out of her personal iCloud account before turning her laptop in.
On her last day at DPI, August 31, 2017, Carolyn Guthrie handed her MacBook to IT employee Haider Qasim, who assured her that the device would be wiped per department protocol. Guthrie walked off into her retirement and never gave the laptop a second thought. *Qasim did not respond to multiple voice mails requesting comment.*
In December of 2018, representatives of the K-3 reading assessment Request for Purchase evaluation team met with Superintendent Mark Johnson to inform him of their recommendation that North Carolina should continue using Amplify’s mClass tool.
About a month later, on January 8, 2019, Johnson called a meeting with voting members of the evaluation team. At the meeting, 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. According to deposition testimony by committee member Susan Laney, some of those present felt his remarks were intended to influence their votes in favor of Istation. At Johnson’s request, the committee voted again. Again Amplify came out on top.
That evening, one of those present–K-3 Literacy Consultant Abbey Whitford–had a phone conversation with Carolyn Guthrie in which she related her concerns about the unusual meeting with Johnson. Guthrie then sent a text message to another retired DPI employee, Anne Evans, which included details from the phone call.
On February 19, 2019, Abbey Whitford was unexpectedly called into a meeting with Mark Johnson’s Deputy Superintendent Pam Shue and HR Director Claire Miller. Whitford was accused of being the source of a confidentiality breach and confronted with a paper copy of the text message between Guthrie and Evans:
According to Whitford’s sworn deposition, when the meeting ended, she drove straight to Carolyn Guthrie’s house and told Guthrie she suspected that someone at DPI was monitoring her text messages. Guthrie pulled up the FindMy app on her iPhone.
Carolyn Guthrie later testified:
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 and was assured it would be wiped. The map clearly indicates the active device is housed inside the Department of Public Instruction building.
Mark Johnson’s General Counsel Jonathan Sink informed the evaluation committee in March that the procurement would be cancelled due to an unspecified confidentiality breach. However, the existence of the now-infamous text message was initially kept secret. It wasn’t until late July that a redacted version was included in Mark Johnson’s denial of Amplify’s protest of his Istation contract award. This version was heavily cropped so it didn’t show the numerous personal family text messages in Carolyn Guthrie’s inbox and made it impossible to determine what kind of device the screenshot had been taken on.
In October 2019, a black and white version of the full text message was included as part of DPI Deputy Superintendent of Operations Kathryn Johnston’s affidavit in the Istation contract dispute and published by WBTV.
Finally, the full color screenshot was an exhibit in the January 2020 DIT hearing into the merits of the Istation contract award.
In the full screenshot, the background image shows the operating system on the computer is iOS Mojave, a version that was released in September of 2018. That means Guthrie’s laptop was either manually updated or automatically updated as part of a process controlled by DPI’s IT department.
It’s also interesting to note that “full screenshot” here doesn’t really mean full. The wider screenshot of the text message has actually been cropped to remove the menu bar at the top.
DPI computers include two logins, one for the IT department and one for the individual user. On Apple MacBooks with multiple user accounts, the menu bar always shows the name of the account that is currently logged in.
In other words, whoever took the text message screenshot on Carolyn Guthrie’s laptop cropped out the menu bar which would have shown her name. That would seem to be a tacit admission of wrongdoing.
Mark Johnson Testimony:
On December 4, 2019, Superintendent Mark Johnson gave a sworn deposition in the case of Amplify vs. DPI and Istation.
Johnson claimed he had no knowledge about 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, and that DPI was investigating, but he said he didn’t know anything about the status of the investigation.
In the deposition, Mark Johnson was asked about Guthrie’s FindMy screenshot showing her DPI-issued MacBook Air still connected to her personal iCloud account inside the Department of Public Instruction building in February 2019. Johnson theorized that Guthrie may have come to DPI and faked the screenshot, because she was known to occasionally visit friends in the building after her retirement. This ludicrous explanation doesn’t account for why the MacBook Air on the FindMy screenshot precisely follows the DPI Information Technology department’s naming scheme for agency devices.
More about Pam Shue:
Mark Johnson claimed in his deposition that Guthrie’s text message initially appeared when an unknown whistleblower slid a paper copy of it under the door of Deputy Superintendent 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, which meant that K-3 Literacy reported to her.
In her deposition, Abbey Whitford testified that in September 2018 Pam Shue held a team meeting where she was extremely upset and told those present that they should not communicate by phone, email or text message with anyone who did not support the superintendent’s vision, and that they should block anyone who fit that description. Members of the team were confused by the apparent lack of context for such an order, and both Whitford and Guthrie testified that they later suspected it may have been issued after Shue became aware of content in Guthrie’s personal communications.
Shue was appointed by Mark Johnson as business owner of the K-3 reading assessment RFP and later cast her vote for Istation. She was never deposed in the Amplify/Istation case so did not testify under oath that she obtained the text message when it was slipped under her door.
The detail about what the image looked like is crucial because Mark Johnson testified in his deposition that the text message printout he initially saw was not the closely cropped version that Dunn had previously seen, but rather the larger image with the background and inbox visible.
According to these explanations, Shue obtained the message by someone sliding a paper under her door. Then somehow it later went from an initial heavily cropped version to a less cropped version.
Pam Shue left DPI at the end of June 2019, shortly before Carolyn Guthrie’s text message was first released to the public. She has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
According to Dr. Brooks Fuller, Director of the NC Open Government Coalition, public agencies often try to stretch the personnel exemption in public records law to fit anything about an employee. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court has already affirmed that protected personnel information is only information that: 1) is collected by the government employer; 2) for a purpose enumerated in the statute. Those protected purposes are: application, selection, promotion, demotion, transfer, leave, salary, contract for employment, benefits, suspension, performance evaluation, disciplinary actions, and termination.
Dr. Fuller told me, “The question of whether a public employee was assigned a specific publicly funded device does not, in my opinion, meet any of these statutory reasons for exemption. I think this is likely an attempt by DPI to extend the reach of the statute beyond its natural and plain meaning.”
What’s the real reason the Department of Public Instruction doesn’t want to be transparent on the matter?
To date, the North Carolina Attorney General, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, and the Wake County District Attorney have all declined to investigate this potential Class H felony that the evidence overwhelmingly suggests occurred at DPI. The Attorney General’s office and SBI told me they don’t have jurisdiction in the case–although a couple of knowledgeable attorneys have suggested to me that jurisdiction is sometimes determined by what is politically expedient.
The Wake County District Attorney reviewed the matter, then informed me that she didn’t intend to open a criminal investigation.
If you want to live in a North Carolina where criminal violations of wiretapping law can’t simply be laughed off by elected officials, and public records requests can’t be stonewalled as part of a possible coverup, please consider contacting your local and state representatives to express your concern about the matter.
UNCG Greensboro education professor and Democratic candidate for state superintendent Dr. Jennifer Mangrum has proposed that the Department of Public Instruction take more leadership in driving equity work in the state by establishing an Office of Equity Affairs.
As superintendent, Mangrum says she would create a position of Deputy Superintendent for Equity and use findings from the WestEd report to set goals and provide support and professional development to LEAs who are struggling with providing the equitable education that is our students’ constitutional right.
The WestEd report, published in December, holds that closing equity gaps in North Carolina will “require a multifaceted approach that addresses the adequacy, quality, and diversity of the supply of both current and prospective teachers.”
Veteran Charlotte Mecklenburg educator and advocate Amanda Thompson thinks increased leadership in equity is one crucial change that needs to take place at DPI: “An equity office is important as we want to maximize the access and opportunities for all, especially our underrepresented populations. Equity must be addressed with who we are attracting and retaining as educators and through in-depth ongoing training on cultural competency.”
According to extensive research by North Carolina nonprofit Center for Racial Equity in Education, the influence of race “functions to diminish both the access and the outcomes of non-Asian students of color.” In addition to other actions, CREED recommends improving access to rigorous coursework such as AP classes, disrupting racial disparities in school discipline, and working toward more equitable deployment of teachers.
While many of the policies that govern those aspects of education are created at the county level, Dr. Mangrum believes a state-level equity initiative will go a long way toward helping counties that want to tackle equity barriers but don’t have the resources or know-how to do so.
Michelle Burton is a public school media specialist in Durham and president of Durham Association of Educators. She sees tremendous need for the Department of Public Instruction to take a more active role on equity. “We have to do more to ensure that students across North Carolina are being treated fairly and that their personal circumstances are not a hindrance for them being successful in school,” she says. “Establishing a DPI Office of Equity Affairs will enable us to take a broader look at equity issues and work together toward equitable education outcomes for all North Carolina students.”
Early voting in the North Carolina primary for state superintendent is underway, and election day is Tuesday, March 3.
Johnson’s message was sent to potential voters just as the primary began for Lieutenant Governor, a position he is seeking. It’s part of his strategy to distinguish himself from the crowded Republican field by playing an anti-establishment maverick with a track record of shaking things up.
In the email, and also in the introduction to the survey itself, Johnson claimed that revisions to North Carolina standards were passed in 2017 by the State Board of Education despite his objections that the new standards were too similar to Common Core:
But is the claim that Johnson went toe to toe with the State Board of Education about Common Core in 2017 actually true?
Fortunately–or unfortunately, for Mark Johnson–detailed records are kept on the State Board’s website and can easily be reviewed to see exactly what conversations took place at each meeting.
Discussions and a vote on English Language Arts standards revisions occurred at the April 2017 State Board meeting. Superintendent Mark Johnson was present, and he did speak during the portion of the meeting dealing with standards revision. He said he’d like more third parties to have an opportunity to weigh on the standards and seemed unaware that DPI already had a process in place to engage the community and collect input. According to the minutes, the phrase Common Core was not used and Johnson did not express any direct opposition to the revised standards. The board voted to approve the new standards.
At the May 2017 meeting, K-8 math standards revisions appeared on the agenda. During this portion of the meeting, Deputy State Superintendent Maria Pitre-Martin told the board that Mark Johnson had directed her team to seek external reviews of standards from six states which represented a mix of Common Core and non-Common Core states. Johnson was present for the meeting, but the minutes show he did not participate in the discussion about revising standards.
Superintendent Johnson was present for the June 2017 meeting of the State Board, and the agenda included discussion and a vote on revised K-8 math standards, which passed. According to the minutes, Johnson was again silent during the discussion about standards revision.
The record clearly reflects that Johnson’s claims of having objected to the State Board’s approval of standards revisions in 2017 are 100% Pants on Fire.
Johnson is also using robocalls to drive potential voters to a website called nomorecommoncore.org, ostensibly to sign an anti-Common Core petition. There’s a donate to Mark Johnson’s campaign for Lieutenant Governor button and visitors are asked to provide an email address, but no petition is visible.
The domain was registered this month, just like Johnson’s anti-Common Core sentiment.
Mark Johnson’s sudden vocal opposition to Common Core standards is nothing more than a disingenuous campaign stunt intended to trick uninformed voters into thinking he’s something that he isn’t.
A recent campaign robocall from Mark Johnson should remove any remaining doubt that the state superintendent’s sudden anti-Common Core push is a disingenuous effort to earn votes.
The call, which you can hear in its entirety below, begins with the words
“I’m Mark Johnson. As your elected superintendent, I’m fighting to end Common Core. As your candidate for Lieutenant Governor, I ask you to please vote for Johnson, because I want your help to get back to common sense in government.”
Johnson does not mention the fact that North Carolina repealed Common Core in 2014, replacing the national standards with revised state standards in 2017.
After more than three years in the superintendent’s office, Johnson suddenly began speaking out against Common Core this month–the same month early voting begins in the March 3 primary for North Carolina Lieutenant Governor.
Last week Mark Johnson raised eyebrows by using personal cell phone numbers and email addresses of hundreds of thousands of North Carolina public school families and employees which he collected from school districts to send an anti-Common Core message clumsily disguised as a survey seeking input from North Carolinians.
This use of state resources for campaign purposes earned Johnson dozens of ethics complaints, filed with the State Ethics Commission by fed up educators and parents like myself.
Johnson’s spokesman responded with a personal attack, telling the Raleigh News & Observer, “This blogger should be considering his own ethics given that he continues to push harmful lies about DPI …This is another disingenuous attempt to discredit Superintendent Johnson’s efforts to listen to actual parents and teachers, instead of Elitist Insiders.”
The robocall makes it clear that Mark Johnson sudden Common Core hate has nothing to do with any efforts to listen to parents and teachers.
If you’d like to know how to file an ethics complaint in North Carolina, there’s a tutorial here:
The volume of technology being used in K-12 classrooms has increased exponentially over the past few years, driven by ed-tech corporations who dangle promises of closing the opportunity gap through a personalized approach to learning.
All too often, schools have fallen for slick marketing of unvetted programs, failing to ask the right questions about side effects and impact on learning outcomes. We’ve allowed profit-motivated ed-tech companies to determine what teaching and learning will look like in our classrooms.
Fortunately, the good people at Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood have just released a fantastic resource for anyone who wants to learn more about what the increase in screen time in schools is actually doing to our children.
The Screens in Schools Action Kit provides simple and beautifully organized tools to help you research this important issue and advocate for the changes our students need.
The kit is divided into 4 sections.
The first is The Problem, which covers current trends in the use of technology in K-12 classrooms and the damage that is done when human interaction is displaced by screen interaction. I found this part of the kit to be especially compelling as it includes thorough research-based summaries on Effects of Ed Tech on Learning, Effects of Screen Time on Health, and Effects of Ed Tech on Psychological and Social-Emotional Wellbeing.
The second section of the Screens in Schools Action Kit is Tools for Parents. Among other things, it includes information on student privacy issues and extensive help for parents who are interested in organizing around the issue of excessive screen use in schools.
Tools for Educators highlights educator concerns over screen use and offers resources for educators who would like to push back against trends that diminish the teacher’s role in the classroom in favor of computerized approaches to teaching and learning.
Further Reading rounds out the kit with additional reading on the overuse of screens in K-12 classrooms.
Big thanks to Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood for their tireless advocacy on behalf of our children.
Article 4. Ethical Standards for Covered Persons. § 138A-31. Use of public position for private gain.
(a) Except as permitted under G.S. 138A-38, a covered person or legislative employee shall not knowingly use the covered person’s or legislative employee’s public position in an official action or legislative action that will result in financial benefit to the covered person or legislative employee, a member of the covered person’s or legislative employee’s extended family, or business with which the covered person or legislative employee is associated. This subsection shall not apply to financial or other benefits derived by a covered person or legislative employee that the covered person or legislative employee would enjoy to an extent no greater than that which other citizens of the State would or could enjoy, or that are so remote, tenuous, insignificant, or speculative that a reasonable person would conclude under the circumstances that the covered person’s or legislative employee’s ability to protect the public interest and perform the covered person’s or legislative employee’s official duties would not be compromised.
(b) A covered person shall not mention or authorize another person to mention the covered person’s public position in nongovernmental advertising that advances the private interest of the covered person or others.
If you feel an elected official may have violated this act, you can easily fill out and submit a complaint. Here are the steps you’ll follow:
Mark Johnson has been North Carolina’s Superintendent of Public Instruction for more than 3 years. After a disastrous single term he’s not even running for re-election. That’s why it caught people by surprise last week when he came out swinging at Common Core state standards.
Wait, what? Why now?
Because the Republican primary for Lieutenant Governor is three weeks away. Early voting actually begins this Thursday. In a crowded field of Republican candidates, the beleaguered superintendent is hoping to swing some low-information voters his way with a disingenuous campaign stunt.
North Carolina’s State Board of Education voted in April 2017 to revise literacy standards and in June 2017 to revise math standards. Standards were rewritten and the changes were later implemented at the classroom level.
The degree to which the standards changed varies by subject area and grade level, but for Mark Johnson to claim that North Carolina’s schools are still teaching Common Core is just false. As state superintendent he is obviously quite well positioned to know that.
Just like when Mark Johnson bolted at the end of his second year teaching 9th grade science, he simply can’t wait to abandon ship. Stirring up conservative ire against the Common Core may well help him in the primary.
Side note: for old times’ sake, here’s actual video of Mark Johnson leaving West Charlotte High School at the end of his brief teaching career:
Eager to keep his campaign momentum going after the little flurry of media activity he got last week, today Johnson spammed educators and caretakers with emails and texts–leading many to question 1) How did this guy get my personal cell phone number? and b) What’s up with campaigning using state resources?
The subject line of Johnson’s message was “Common Core – Keep or Replace?” and its supposed purpose was to gather stakeholder input through collecting survey data.
But if Johnson really wanted to know what people thought, he failed miserably at avoiding survey bias. Using phrases like “confusing math [and] course content that is not developmentally appropriate for young students” and literally offering your opinion in the sentence immediately preceding the one where you ask for input is not a sound survey technique.
Here’s an excerpt:
Of course, the truth is, Mark Johnson doesn’t want anyone’s opinion about the nonexistent North Carolina Common Core standards. What he really wants is for people to catch a couple misleading headlines and tell their neighbors that Mark is just the guy to stick it to the establishment.
What will it say about North Carolina voters if this shameless strategy propels Mark Johnson to victory in the primary?
In a unanimous vote on Monday night, the Matthews town council passed a resolution which should put an end to talk about the Charlotte suburb setting up its own system of charter schools.
The resolution acknowledges that the issue has strained relationships with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and states in part:
BE IT NOW FURTHER RESOLVED, the Town of Matthews has no intention of pursuing the development of a municipal charter school system any time in the foreseeable future, as we believe it is neither necessary nor financially feasible to do so.
Former Mecklenburg County Representative Bill Brawley sponsored municipal charter bill HB 514 in 2018, when Republicans still held a veto-proof supermajority in the state legislature. The law gave Matthews, Mint Hill, Cornelius, and Huntersville the authority to set up and operate their own charter schools.
Critics held such a move would deepen racial and economic segregation in Mecklenburg County, as the four towns are overwhelmingly white and would draw white students away from CMS schools while excluding students of color from neighboring communities.
Town residents were also concerned that their property taxes would rise significantly to fund the new schools, and that they’d find themselves paying taxes toward two school systems at the same time.
Brawley lost his seat to Rachel Hunt in 2018. The other big municipal charter cheerleader, Matthews Mayor Paul Bailey, lost to John Higdon in November 2019. One of Higdon’s big campaign issues was the need for improving the relationship between Matthews and Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools.