State School Superintendent muzzles communication from DPI

By: - July 12, 2017 2:25 pm

Superintendent Mark Johnson

A directive from Superintendent Mark Johnson to temporarily halt key listserv communications from the Department of Public Instruction has some concerned the order will chill the flow of information from North Carolina’s top public school agency.

Policy Watch learned last week of Johnson’s command, which comes at a particularly busy time for central office personnel as they prep for the coming school year. This would include sorting through myriad legislative changes including 24 new reporting requirements for DPI.

In Johnson’s message, recently obtained by Policy Watch, the superintendent wrote the department would “take a break in the distribution of information to the field and to other lists for stakeholders” following last month’s retirement of the agency’s longtime communications chief.

The superintendent said staff should stop use of their GovDelivery email lists—which provides for mass distribution of agency information across the state—for the month of July, and Johnson would notify staff when communications could resume.

The message provided a few exceptions to the order, allowing for updates from the State Board of Education, legally-required public meeting notices and updates from the student information system, which includes end-of-year reporting from schools.

Multiple sources within the department, past and present, say the edict will slow or stop the dispersal of vital information in the summer months as the agency prepares for the 2017-2018 academic year. Some of those sources wished to go unnamed, fearing reprisal.

“In the past, we’ve been trusted as professionals to go ahead and communicate,” one longtime staffer told Policy Watch. “This is a political control move, and it’s just blatant. I don’t know you can interpret it any other way.”

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The comments come days after a Policy Watch report noted GOP lawmakers’ approved budget singled out several employees for termination with connections to former Democratic Superintendent June Atkinson and the State Board of Education, which has sparred publicly and in court with lawmakers over the powers of Johnson’s office.

For many at DPI, GovDelivery is a central means of communicating with the field across North Carolina, multiple staff members said.

Johnson did not agree to an interview this week, but the superintendent—a Republican who defeated  Atkinson in November’s election—said in a statement Tuesday other exceptions have been allowed in the days since. Johnson did not provide specifics, but those exceptions apparently include updates from the department’s finance office, which has continued to post reports.

DPI officials said the superintendent could make allowances for other communications considered “vital,” although they would be run through Johnson’s office first.

The department “has not shut down communications with the field, only temporarily paused listserv communications for the month of July, with certain exceptions,” Johnson wrote. “Since this is summer break for our educators, this pause is appropriate while we search for a new communications director and to enable the Department to thoughtfully review the many communications that come from our agency.”

Johnson’s statement would seem to contradict his order, which specifically nixed listserv communications with “the field.” The superintendent later clarified that the directive was intended to only halt field communications using the GovDelivery system, although DPI sources say the system is the simplest and most effective means of communicating across North Carolina school districts.

“NC DPI has not shut down all communications with the field, and staff is regularly engaged in supporting the field and responding to questions,” Johnson added.

The order coincides with new directives that all communications with media should be routed through the superintendent’s office. Yet Johnson has been reticent to conduct media interviews since he assumed office in early January, even as state lawmakers discussed massive budget cuts for the department.

And the controversy comes with the nonpartisan DPI, long under the control of a Democrat, facing increased scrutiny from Republican state lawmakers who had already carved more than $19 million and 200 positions from the agency’s budget in recent years despite rising student enrollment.

This year’s budget plan included another hefty funding reduction of 6 percent, worth about $3.2 million, followed by a larger 13.9 percent cut of about $7.29 million next year. That doesn’t include nearly $1 million in funding lost when the agency was ordered to chop multiple positions, both vacant and filled.

The department provides support, professional development, intervention in low-performing schools and oversight for more than 115 local school districts in North Carolina.

Philip Price was the top finance officer for DPI until he retired in February after 38 years working for the agency. This week, he told Policy Watch that he could not “understand the logic” of the superintendent’s order, which he believed was unprecedented in his time at the department.

Price pointed out finance workers within DPI continue to post their reports, but he said the new levels of GovDelivery clearance could slow information concerning teacher licensure, human resources and other departments.

“I don’t know exactly what the directive is stopping,” Price added. “I’m sure it’s stopping something.”

And Price emphasized that, despite the superintendent’s indication that the summer months make for an ideal time for the “break,” central office personnel are particularly active this time of year.

“This is really the busy time for central office people,” he said. “Recruiting, setting up the schools, getting things ordered. It’s a busy, busy time. It might be a downtime for the teachers, except for the ones working summer school. But your principals and central office people are doing a lot of work this time of year to try to make sure school opens and they have an understanding of all the different changes from legislators. That’s why there’s a lot of communications going on.”

The N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), the state’s largest teacher lobbying organization, also expressed concerns.

“We are not sure of the real rationale or reason behind the directive to cease DPI communications for a period of time, but are concerned that public schools and students may miss critical information they need to help our students be more successful,” NCAE President Mark Jewell said.

However, if the temporary communications stoppage has affected schools and central office personnel across the state, they haven’t said so publicly. Leaders with the N.C. School Boards Association and the N.C. Association of School Administrators said this week that they were unaware of the superintendent’s mandate and have received no complaints, although they pointed out district leaders might not know of the change yet.

Bill Cobey, the chairman of the State Board of Education, said he was notified of the temporary stoppage, but doesn’t believe it’s an issue he should “weigh in” on.

“We don’t get involved in the management of the agency,” Cobey added.

The restructuring comes with Johnson prepping in the coming weeks to hire up to 10 new staffers—allotted to him by state lawmakers—that report directly to him and not the State Board of Education. One of those positions is widely expected to include a primary communications officer for the new Republican superintendent.

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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.