DPI improperly denies public records request in spying case, claims computer inventories are confidential 

On Monday, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction improperly denied a public records request filed by dozens of concerned citizens, making it more difficult for the public to learn which member of Superintendent Mark Johnson’s staff illegally snooped on a retiree’s personal text messages.

The citizens are seeking computer inventory records which would reveal who got former K-3 Literacy Director Carolyn Guthrie’s MacBook Air after she retired.  

Guthrie turned in her DPI-issued laptop when she retired in 2017 but neglected to log out of her iCloud account.  More than a year later, a text message between Guthrie and another former DPI employee was intercepted and used by Superintendent Mark Johnson as pretext for cancelling a multimillion dollar K-3 reading assessment procurement.

The superintendent has maintained ignorance about how the text message was obtained, stating in a sworn deposition last fall that a paper copy of the text message was slid under the door of Deputy Superintendent Pam Shue by an anonymous whistleblower.  Johnson has mocked allegations of impropriety with references to his “elite squad of ninjas.”  

In DPI’s denial of the public records request, Director of Communications Graham Wilson claimed that the requested computer inventory records were confidential personnel records:

“The requested asset information is confidential pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 126-22, -24 and thus not subject to disclosure.  The Department is consequently prohibited from releasing such information.”

The statute Wilson cited falls under The Privacy of State Employee Personnel Records, which protects certain sensitive personnel information from being openly available to the public.

That information doesn’t include inventory numbers of computers.

According to Dr. Brooks Fuller, Director of the NC Open Government Coalition, public agencies often try to stretch the personnel exemption 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.”

The Department of Public Instruction seems to be working very hard to keep the public in the dark about what really happened with Carolyn Guthrie’s personal communications.  That shouldn’t surprise anyone who has paid attention to DPI’s practices regarding public records under Mark Johnson’s leadership. It’s especially unsurprising at this point in time, considering that Johnson’s primary for Lieutenant Governor is right around the corner.

Hypothetically speaking, if Johnson himself had direct knowledge of criminal behavior occurring under DPI’s roof, and if he lied about that in a sworn deposition, this would be a really inconvenient time for such details to come to light.

Of course, North Carolina’s public records law doesn’t include a bad political timing exemption–just as it doesn’t include an exemption for those computer inventory records.

EVAAS errors lead to wrong NC teachers being promised thousands of dollars in bonuses

*note updated with correction at end*

A coding error reportedly made by the company that produces EVAAS value-added measures for North Carolina schools has resulted in the wrong 3rd grade teachers being informed that they had earned thousands of dollars in bonus pay.

The error means an unknown number of North Carolina school districts were unable to meet their statutory obligation to pay the bonuses before the end of January–and that districts have to figure out the best way to break the bad news to teachers who were counting on the additional income.

It also promises to make the controversial practice of rewarding a handful of teachers for student test growth even more divisive than it already is.

In a January message to Human Resources Directors across the state, NCDPI’s Director of Educator Recruitment and Support Dr. Tom Tomberlin explained that, due to a coding error, “some teachers who were previously identified as eligible for a state or LEA bonus are no longer eligible to receive one or both bonuses.”

Tomberlin added that he understood teachers would be disappointed to learn they wouldn’t receive a bonus, and that his office would work to “answer any questions about the data corrections.”


I reached out to ask Dr. Tomberlin how many teachers were impacted by the error. At the time of publication Tomberlin hadn’t responded.

I also contacted SAS to inquire how the error had occurred and how many teachers it had affected. SAS, too, didn’t reply.

The Cary-based SAS software company has provided the EVAAS value-added measure for North Carolina schools for more than a decade. The tool is intended to show how effective educators are by measuring precisely what value each teacher adds to their students’ learning. It relies solely on standardized test data to make that determination.  

EVAAS is broadly unpopular with educators, many of whom believe that using a single high-stakes test to measure the value teachers add to their students’ learning is ridiculous.

North Carolina’s EVAAS teacher bonus scheme was conceived by Senator Phil Berger and implemented by state lawmakers in the 2016 budget, offering teachers the chance to earn as much as $9500 in additional pay by being in the top 25% for EVAAS growth in their district and state.  Although they have since been broadened to include other grade levels and subject areas, the bonuses were initially intended as a way of improving 3rd grade reading results after the 2013 Read to Achieve legislation had failed to do so.

Three years later, test results indicate the bonus program is also not improving student learning:

The results are consistent with research on the impact of financial incentives in education which finds that, not only do bonuses fail to increase student achievement, in some cases they even decrease it.  

Introducing a spirit of competition among educators that you are already underpaying isolates teachers and damages the relationships that are critical to maintaining a positive school culture where collaboration and learning can flourish.  Furthermore, paying a bonus to a 3rd grade teacher but ignoring the impact that educators in grades K-2 had on the growth of the same children, or the work that the media specialist, the EC teacher, the school counselor, or the administrators did to help those students be successful is highly problematic.

Now imagine receiving a letter in December saying that you’d earned bonuses worth several thousand dollars. You make plans to pay off medical bills, you go ahead and book a spring break flight–maybe even quit a part-time job in anticipation of the windfall. Then weeks later you’re told that you actually didn’t earn anything–but the teacher next door did. What’s that going to do to collaborative spirit?

The error in question was reportedly made by SAS but not discovered by the software company. Rather, school personnel noticed discrepancies and raised red flags, which led to DPI asking districts to put the brakes on paying out 3rd grade bonuses until the problem could be straightened out.

The fact that SAS wasn’t the first to notice the error raises important questions about whether this is the first time the wrong teachers were identified as having earned the bonuses.

The mixup also presents a great opportunity to revisit whether this is the best way for North Carolina to be spending $39 million a year.

Update: Keung Hui of the Raleigh News and Observer reports the data error was made by DPI and not by SAS. That conflicts with information I received earlier in the week from a reliable source, but if DPI is publicly owning the mistake it seems likely to be true.

I’ll reiterate that, well in advance of publication, I reached out to both SAS and DPI’s Tom Tomberlin (as well as DPI’s Chief Business Officer Alexis Schauss) for clarification on how the error had occurred. None of them responded.

Superintendent Mark Johnson should probably remove the Donate button from his official website

Since its launch in the fall of 2018, Mark Johnson’s ncsuperintendent.com website has been criticized by many in the education world as being way too self serving for an official state communication tool.

The site hosts an assortment of awkward photo ops with students and a dedicated self-adulation page. It even offers a portrait of the state superintendent for download as a .pdf.

As if those features weren’t campaign-y enough, both the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy pages of ncsuperintendent.com include Donate buttons.

To be clear, the pages appear to be incomplete boilerplate areas of the website which do not actually funnel anything into Johnson’s campaign coffers and speak more to his incompetence than anything else.

Still, it’s not a good look for an elected official who’s been flooding educator inboxes with emails intended to gain political points and drive additional traffic to the site:

Johnson’s .com website was initially rolled out during 2018’s Hurricane Florence, and the state superintendent used the storm as an excuse to shut down DPI’s site and direct all its traffic to his new personal site for two days.

Staff at the North Carolina Department of Information Technology was not amused.

Documents obtained through a public records request show that, just a couple of weeks later, the NC State Auditor’s office relayed a complaint to DIT alleging the superintendent was “abusing state resources and denying citizens’ rights to legitimate resources.”

The next day, State Chief Risk Officer Maria Thompson drafted a “Notice of Non-Compliance with State Statutes” for DPI’s Chief Information Officer Michael Nicolaides, pointing out various ways the website’s launch had violated state law:

DRAFT-DPI-Website-NonConformance-Ltr_v1

That evening, Chief Information Officer Eric Boyette pumped the brakes on the sternly-worded letter, and there is no evidence it was ever sent to DPI.

Boyette-pumps-the-brakes

Mark Johnson has since filed to run for Lieutenant Governor, and it’s looking increasingly clear that his intent all along was simply to use the office of superintendent as a stepping stone to elsewhere. That would explain the inappropriate blending of his official duties with political campaigning.

North Carolina’s public schools deserve a leader who is 100% committed to working on their behalf, who is not in it for personal gain.

November 2020 can’t get here soon enough.