Unofficial DPI spokesman raises questions of accountability, transparency

By: - February 21, 2017 4:51 pm


State Superintendent Mark Johnson and unofficial spokesman Jonathan Felts

When Jonathan Felts speaks for North Carolina’s superintendent of public instruction, he insists it’s a labor of love.

Felts, a former George W. Bush White House staffer, professional GOP consultant and senior advisor to former Gov. Pat McCrory, says he’s taking no pay for his work in the office of new Superintendent Mark Johnson.

That includes providing updates and statements to the press on behalf of Johnson’s state office and offering scheduling details for the superintendent as he embarks on a statewide listening tour. Felts emphasizes his official title is transition chairman for Johnson, nearly two months into the new superintendent’s tenure in Raleigh.

“I’m just a parent of a young child who’s been blessed with a lot of unique opportunities,” says Felts.

Whether or not he’s being paid—campaign reports for Johnson and the N.C. GOP show no payments to Felts or The Results Company last year, and 2017 finance reports aren’t due for weeks—it’s a nebulous role for Felts, who also, according to Department of Public Instruction (DPI) officials, is neither considered a state employee nor a contracted worker for the agency.

Yet in the early months of Johnson’s term, Felts has, at times, acted in media reports as a de facto spokesman for the somewhat press-shy superintendent, whose job is overseeing North Carolina’s 2,500 or so public schools. Johnson, a Republican who took over DPI in January after more than a decade of Democratic leadership, is expected to lay out a blueprint for conservative K-12 reforms in the coming months.

In January, he announced “action items” for major public school reforms will be proposed when he completes his listening tour later this year. Those reforms are expected to include greater state support for school choice in North Carolina, via charter expansion and controversial publicly funded scholarships for students attending private schools.

How much of this develops into concrete policies remains to be seen as Johnson assembles his DPI team. For the moment, that includes Felts, a partner and senior strategist with Raleigh-based The Results Company, a N.C. public affairs firm that has advised state Republicans in the last decade.

Yet critics say Felts’ off-the-books job with Johnson means the GOP consultant could discuss a bevy of anticipated public education reforms for the state superintendent’s office, but is arguably not accountable to state taxpayers or subject to the state’s open records laws for public officials, unless Johnson or his office staff is involved in the communication.

All of this, according to government, politics and ethics experts who spoke to Policy Watch, may not be illegal, but it’s certainly unusual. And to critics of the newly-elected Republican superintendent, it may even be downright unethical.

“If (Felts) is doing it for free and not hired by the department, he has no official authority to speak on the superintendent’s behalf,” said former state Superintendent June Atkinson, the Democrat and four-decade DPI official who Johnson stunned in November’s election.

Felts, who’s also provided consulting services for powerful North Carolina Republicans such as Senate President Phil Berger and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, would seem to offer seasoned advice at a time of transition for Johnson, a political newcomer with relatively little experience in public schools.

Johnson taught for two years in a Charlotte high school with the Teach for America program before leaving the profession to become a corporate attorney and later winning a seat on his local school board in Winston-Salem in 2014.

Johnson’s office did not respond to Policy Watch requests for interview this week to talk about Felts, but that’s not a major departure for Johnson. Aside from a few press conferences, written statements and brief talks with reporters, the new superintendent has had relatively little contact with the media, including this outlet, since he defeated Atkinson in November.

Meanwhile, Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, a Raleigh lobbying group that advocates for teachers at the General Assembly, says North Carolinians should be concerned about transparency in the top DPI office, given Johnson oversees roughly 1.5 million public school students in the state.

“We expect all of our elected officials to be accountable to their constituents and their taxpayers,” said Jewell. “Any statewide office that is overseeing one of the biggest state agencies for public schools needs to be very forthright and open about public education policy.”

N.C. House Democratic Whip Bobbie Richardson, a retired school administrator who’s one of the highest ranking Democrats on the House Education Committee, says the news gives her reason for concern about the new superintendent.

“There’s nothing for us to hold (Felts) accountable because he’s not an employee,” said Richardson. “That, to me, truly is alarming. I would say it would give me wonder about how much he understands about running a state organization and the hiring of staff.”

Richardson says that, while she’s had no substantial policy discussions with Johnson, she was already concerned about his support for school choice champion Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s controversial pick for U.S. education secretary, and Johnson’s support for diverting public funds into private school vouchers.

As detractors point out, many of the state-funded private schools, which are exempted from accountability measures imposed on traditional K-12 schools, are religious facilities. And, as Policy Watch has reported, some private school heads have been accused of imposing anti-LGBT admissions policies.

Meanwhile, Felts insists his relationship with Johnson, who has his own official communications office staffed with former Atkinson employees, is not worth any controversy.

And state Republican chiefs who spoke to Policy Watch felt the same this week, pointing out Johnson is currently entangled in a lawsuit between the Republican-controlled state legislature and the State Board of Education which, among other key points, disputes the hiring and firing powers of his office.

Currently, Johnson has leeway to hire a handful of positions on his own. Indeed, he used that authority to name former McCrory staffer Lindsay Wakely a senior policy advisor last month. Yet removing officials from many senior administrative and management positions at DPI would require the backing of the State Board of Education, at least for now.

Shortly before Johnson assumed office in January, GOP leaders in the state legislature enacted broad new hiring and firing powers for the superintendent’s office, although the constitutionality of that law has been challenged in court by the State Board of Education.

The state board is a panel of gubernatorial appointees that, despite being stocked mostly with McCrory selections, has clashed publicly over charter school oversight with conservative school choice leaders, many of whom are closely aligned with Republican leadership in the General Assembly.

The curbs to state board power come with new Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper poised to fill at least six new members to the 13-member board, including three seats set to expire next month.

If the legislature’s law survives the court challenge, Johnson would presumably have the power to dismantle many management offices in the agency, including the DPI communications office and more.

But it remains to be seen whether Johnson would take that approach, and, just last week, DPI’s retiring Deputy Superintendent Rebecca Garland told Policy Watch she hoped the new administration would bypass any politically-motivated dismissals.

Garland is one of a handful of longtime DPI role-players to announce their departure since Johnson’s election, although Garland, who complimented Johnson’s leadership in his first months, says the election upset only sped her retirement by a matter of months. Others, such as former DPI legislative liaison Rachel Beaulieu, left for policy work elsewhere.

Last week, Felts slammed members of the State Board of Education for hindering the superintendent’s personnel plans, although it’s worth noting that, if the new state law does not go into effect, Johnson would have the same staffing powers held by Atkinson when she left office.

“Unfortunately, the decision by the McCrory appointees and others on the State Board of Education to file an expensive lawsuit at taxpayer expense means personnel and other important decisions are delayed by the state board’s system that seems to be made up as we go along,” Felts wrote.

Meanwhile, a number of prominent Republicans defended Johnson’s office this week.

“I see (no) ethical or conflict of issues here,” N.C. Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse wrote in an email to Policy Watch Monday. “However the issue would be moot, if we had a reasonable system, where the duly elected state superintendent could make hiring choices like (every) other statewide elected official.”

And Bill Cobey, the Republican chairman of the State Board of Education, cautioned that political consultants like Felts have often spoken for statewide candidates in the past.

“It is natural for some political consultants throughout our state to make comments,” said Cobey. “I can think of many times where there were comments of all sorts made on behalf of a candidate they’re working with.”

Asked, however, if it’s appropriate for such a relationship to continue weeks after a candidate officially assumes office, Cobey opted not to comment, adding that he’s had no interaction with Felts since Johnson took office.

Yet the state board chair did seem to acknowledge a rift over DPI staffing. “We hope when the time comes that we have to have a communications officer, that it be somebody we agree is the best person for all concerned,” he said.

Others, such as Atkinson, though, were not so reluctant to speak. “I’ve never seen a transition team work after a person takes office,” said Atkinson. “Transition occurs before taking the oath of office.”

Keith Poston, President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, does see merit in Johnson’s decision to keep Felts in this unofficial position.

“I spent most of my career in corporate communications before joining the Public School Forum, so I understand the importance of the public relations function and totally get why Superintendent Johnson would want to have his own person in that role. With the State Board lawsuit he’s a bit limited on personnel decisions, so I suspect he feels like this is an important enough function he’s simply staffing in a way that works for him.”

Despite criticisms regarding the precedent, most legal observers agree Johnson’s office seems to be acting within the boundaries of the law.

Both Frayda Bluestein, a professor in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government, and Perry Newson, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, which oversees enforcement of the state’s ethics law, acknowledged the statues aren’t likely to preclude Felts’ unorthodox involvement in the superintendent’s office.

Still, Bluestein acknowledged the arrangement could be “confusing,” pointing out that the fact Felts is not an official representative of a public agency would likely exclude his communications from open records laws.

Staff in the office of N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, suggested that may be open to interpretation Tuesday. Natalie Murdock, a deputy in Stein’s press office, says they believe it’s debatable whether or not an unofficial representative for a state agency discussing state business would be subject to open records requirements.

That said, Newson at the Ethics Commission notes Felts’ role in the superintendent’s office is not completely without precedent. Newson pointed out Art Pope, a wealthy N.C. businessman and GOP benefactor, once served as former Gov. McCrory’s budget director with an annual salary of $1.

“I don’t think there’s a hook for the ethics act,” said Newson.

However, an ethics expert who spoke to Policy Watch this week agrees the situation is, at the least, an unusual one with real implications for public accountability.

Hana Callaghan, director of government ethics for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, one of the nation’s leading government ethics think tanks, says there are major issues at play.

“First, the Superintendent has a duty of transparency and accountability to the people of your State,” said Callaghan. “By avoiding press and keeping his staff in the dark he is not meeting that obligation.”

And, public records laws notwithstanding, Callaghan says anyone speaking for Johnson’s office should do so with a proper understanding of their ethical responsibilities.

“I would argue that the spokesperson also has duties of transparency and accountability,” said Callaghan.  “Since he has assumed this governmental role, he must assume the duties that come with it. The fact that he is not getting paid should not weigh into whether he has an obligation to the people he has chosen to serve.  For example, many people volunteer to serve on boards and commissions without pay, yet they have the same ethical obligations of any public servant.”

Advocates and stakeholders, meanwhile, say they’ll simply have to wait to see what policies emerge from Johnson’s office in the coming months.

“I cannot speak for or against how he will govern,” said Rep. Richardson. “I haven’t seen anything that he has presented to us as far as policy recommendations.”

In the meantime, Atkinson says Johnson’s office has a responsibility to uphold accountability and transparency as it develops that policy.

“What happens in public education is the business of the citizens of North Carolina. Any work done on behalf of public education should be open and transparent to the public.”

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.