Mark Johnson flips the State Ethics Commission the bird on the way out the door

When former Superintendent Mark Johnson rolled out his Common Core campaign stunt last February, it was not the first time he’d used his position for self promotion.  

Johnson had already earned countless educator eye rolls for the luxurious, colorful flyers with pictures of himself he was fond of blanketing school mailboxes with, and his use of the now-defunct ncsuperintendent.com website for official purposes was the frequent subject of scorn.

But when Johnson came out swinging against the Common Core State Standards for the first time ever–a full three years into his term as superintendent and just three weeks before he was due to run in the March 2020 Republican primary for Lieutenant Governor–it was just so obvious and shameless.  

A crowded Republican field.  The need to distinguish himself.  The choice of a favorite conservative boogeyman.

What was different this time was how Johnson chose to disseminate his campaign message.  The superintendent sent a message which said “NC Superintendent Johnson wants to remove Common Core from NC schools. Do you?” with a link to a survey filled with anti-Common Core language to 800,000 email addresses and 540,000 cell phone numbers of educators and public school parents and guardians.  

Johnson had sent mass emails before, but it was the first time he’d sent a mass text message, and it led many to question how the superintendent had gotten their personal cell phone numbers without their consent.  There was really only one logical explanation of the source:  local school contact information databases which contain email addresses and telephone numbers collected from employees and families of enrolled students.

The State Ethics Act clearly forbids elected and appointed officials from using their public position for private gain, so in mid-February I filed an official complaint with the North Carolina State Ethics Commission regarding Superintendent Mark Johnson using the resources of the office of state superintendent for his personal political campaign purposes.

parmenter-ethics-complaint

In mid-March I received word from the Commission that the investigation would be proceeding.  Then there was a protracted period of silence.  During summer I spoke briefly with the Commission’s Investigations Counsel Jameson Marks, expressing my concern about the pace of the investigation given the limited time Superintendent Johnson had remaining in office.   Mr. Marks said he was unable to discuss a pending investigation and could only confirm that it was moving forward.

The next communication I received about the investigation into my complaint came on December 31, Mark Johnson’s last day in office as state superintendent.  The Commission provided me a summary of its work and let me know that it was suspending the investigation because, as a private citizen, Johnson no longer fell under its jurisdiction.

Initially I was inclined to blame the slow pace of work on the part of the Ethics Commission.  After all, the law requires the commission to “conduct an inquiry into all complaints…in a timely manner.”  But as I read the Commission’s report on the matter, it became clear that the Commission had done everything it could under the law to carry out the investigation.

The problem, according to the Commission’s report, is that it had been met with “significant resistance” to information requests, “incomplete responses requiring frequent follow-up” and refusal on the part of Superintendent Johnson to be interviewed by Commission staff.  

The Commission noted that willful failure to cooperate with an investigation as required by law is considered malfeasance and can be cause for impeachment.  However, it also concluded that because Johnson had “declined to fully cooperate in the Commission’s investigation, the Panel is unable to determine whether there is probably cause to conclude that Respondent’s actions violated the Ethics Act.”

The Commission did add that, although the investigation had to be suspended when Johnson left office for jurisdictional reasons, if he is elected to an office covered by the Ethics Act in the future the investigation will resume and failure to cooperate will be addressed at that time.

It’s understandable that the Ethics Act, which exists to “ensure that elected and appointed State agency officials exercise their authority honestly and fairly, free from impropriety, threats, favoritism, and undue influence” can not apply to private citizens, and the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission ends when the individual under investigation is no longer considered a “covered person.”  But what’s really troubling about how all this played out is how easy it was for Mark Johnson to simply run out the clock for nearly a year and avoid accountability for his possible misuse of state resources.

A law that requires the Ethics Commission to conduct inquiries in a timely manner needs to include some sort of enforcement mechanism to enable them to do that.  There is powerful disincentive for unethical elected officials to comply with an investigation that may end with their removal from office, and Johnson’s playbook sends a clear message to others that cooperation is optional.

Mark Johnson seems likely to run for office in the future.  He said in a December mass email to educators, “My time in office concludes, for now, at the end of this month.”  There is no statute of limitations on ethics complaints in North Carolina, and if Johnson takes office again there are plenty of people with long memories who will ensure that he is held accountable.  In the meantime, this toothless ethics law needs to be fixed to make it less likely that our current leaders abuse their power as they serve North Carolinians.

You can read the Ethics Commission’s report in its entirety below:

Mark-Johnson-Ethic-Commission-Notice-of-Investigation-Suspension

Education advocates face increasingly ugly attacks

I hesitated to make this public, for reasons which I think will be obvious. But as attacks on vocal educators veer into uglier territory, I think it’s important for that ugliness to be exposed and called out when it crosses lines.

This week I went to the school building to package up some books to mail to my students. This letter from someone I don’t know in Texas was waiting in my mailbox:

It’s not the first time I’ve faced harassment for speaking up about education issues (although it’s the first I recall anyone crossing the Mom Line).

During this pandemic I’ve been accused of being personally responsible for the eighteenth largest school district in the country being closed for in-person instruction–not COVID, me–and have had people publicly call for my stalking.

After I pointed to a connection between white privilege and advocacy strategy by those pushing for a return to in-person learning, my comments were spotlighted by a local board of education member, leading to a torrent of harassment via social media and email. From there those comments gained the attention of a right wing North Carolina blogger and later a fringe national publication, both of whom misrepresented what I had said and stirred up a giant nest of extremely ugly hornets. Presumably that’s how this creepy guy in Grand Prairie, TX, even knows I exist.

From frequent contact with colleagues around the state who are active in advocacy efforts, I know I am not the only one who is facing personal attacks at a time when speaking up about safety and social justice has never been more important.

Let me say this as clearly as I can:

The goal of this harassment is to intimidate educators into silence.

In the case of issues of social justice and white privilege–topics that seem to provoke the most abhorrent reaction–the aim is to preserve a harmful status quo. Attacks around COVID safety issues are intended to force school employees to accept unsafe working conditions in silence.

We can’t allow those strategies to succeed. There is too much at stake.

We have to recognize this behavior for what it is, call it out when needed, and continue with the work of shining lights where they need to be shined.

2021 reset: Here’s what’s happening with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and COVID

statewide positivity rate as of 1/3 (source: NCDHHS)

As Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools emerges from a two week winter break and students prepare to return to class, this is a good time to review where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re headed in terms of school and the COVID pandemic.

At its December 8 meeting, the CMS Board of Education voted 6-3 to approve Superintendent Winston’s recommendation to move most students back to remote learning until January 19.

In explaining his recommendation, Mr. Winston cited growing community COVID spread and the potential for further increases in the weeks ahead. Exceptions to the move included EC and Pre-K students.

Mecklenburg County metrics at the time of this vote:

• 474 infections per day
• 11% positivity
• 242 acute care hospitalizations

At its December 22 emergency meeting, the CMS Board voted 8-1 to approve Superintendent Winston’s recommendation–supported by Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris–to move EC and Pre-K students to remote learning as well.

Mr. Winston again referred to worsening COVID metrics as well as the potential for infections to continue to rise following winter break, citing the impact of Thanksgiving on community spread as a recent example.

Mecklenburg County metrics at the time of this vote:

• 680 infections per day
• 12% positivity
• 340 acute care hospitalizations

The December 22 vote in favor of Superintendent Winston’s recommendation included two members who have recently opposed moves to remote learning. One of them was District 5 representative Margaret Marshall, who said, “We are in a rough time and I think most people in our community understand that. When our positivity rates are down and our cases per 100,000 are down, we are certainly able to deliver education better, and I had voted when all those numbers were in a more yellow and green area that we proceed with speed to that…but I do think that right now is a pretty clear time to pause that.”

District 1 representative Rhonda Cheek’s support of the move also came as a surprise to many, although the primary reason she cited for her vote was “the level of vitriol and hostility in our community” between those with disparate views on in-person vs. remote learning. Mrs. Cheek referred to the two weeks of additional remote learning for EC and Pre-K students as “a chance to cool off”–not for COVID infections but rather for stakeholders’ emotions–and added “Do not come to me a few days before the 19th and tell me you still can’t get this figured out to be safe…I’m not going to be on the yes side if we vote before the 19th to extend it further.”

The lone vote opposing the December 22 motion came from District 6 representative Sean Strain. Following the meeting Mr. Strain notified the public via Twitter that he intended to seek remedy from Senator Thom Tillis, although he didn’t explain what authority Tillis had over local school board decisions:

Mr. Strain has also been active in using Facebook to organize parents who oppose remote learning, calling on them to take action to pressure policymakers toward returning students for face-to-face instruction:

As CMS begins the second semester January 5, the impact of holiday travel on our community’s COVID infection rates is not yet known. The district’s data dashboard has not been updated since before the break, and Mecklenburg County’s data releases are also on pause due to the holiday. Both should be updated this week.

What we do know from the state level is that North Carolina set another record for highest number of new daily COVID cases with more than 9500 on New Year’s Day, and as of Sunday morning statewide positivity rate stood at 15.5%.

The current plan is for students of all grade levels whose families have not opted into Full Remote Academy to return for in-person instruction under Plan B (rotation with social distancing and masks) on January 19.

The Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education’s next regularly scheduled meeting is Tuesday, January 12 at 6 pm. That meeting will include an opportunity for public comments.