Mark Johnson accused of misleading the public regarding literacy program spending

By: - December 6, 2017 5:30 am

North Carolina’s former public school superintendent June Atkinson says the state’s current K-12 leader “misled” the public when he blasted the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) last month over $15 million in unspent Read to Achieve dollars.

Atkinson criticized Superintendent Mark Johnson in recent interviews with Policy Watch, nearly a month after Johnson slammed the K-12 bureaucracy for “disturbing” spending practices, including its alleged failure to dole out state cash in 2015 and 2016 intended to boost elementary reading proficiency.

“Mark does not understand or has not in all candor or transparency pointed out that a substantial amount of that unspent money would be a direct result of (local) school districts not using the dollars,” says Atkinson.

The budget bickering comes with Johnson, a Republican who defeated Atkinson in last year’s election, expected to commission a 2018 audit of DPI to find operational inefficiencies. GOP lawmakers budgeted in $1 million in expected savings from the audit next year.

Yet, according to Atkinson and other former public school leaders who spoke to Policy Watch, much of the so-called “reversion” money cited by Johnson last month could only be spent by local governments, and not the state department.

Furthermore, they say that intervention by the state budget office in 2015 prevented the department from spending excess Read to Achieve dollars to offset other legislative budget cuts.

“Technically, we weren’t trying to build a bureaucracy,” said Philip Price, DPI’s longtime finance chief, who retired in 2017. “We were trying to maintain services.”

Johnson’s own chief budget advisor, Chloe Gossage, played a part in that fracas. When officials with the Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) intervened in October 2015, Gossage—the former policy director for ex-Gov. Pat McCrory—was the OSBM’s chief operating officer.

And an October 2015 email obtained by Policy Watch appears to indicate that Gossage was in consultation with OSBM’s assistant state budget officer for education, Adam Brueggemann, on DPI’s Read to Achieve budget wrangling.

But, despite Gossage’s involvement, Johnson’s office didn’t offer any further context last month on their criticism of DPI’s spending habits. Now, Atkinson suggests Johnson is using the controversy to fuel long-standing Republican criticism of DPI’s funding priorities.

“It’s not only not fair, it’s not true,” said Atkinson. “I don’t understand whether someone in the department didn’t read the law or they just misunderstood.”

The controversy spurred 2016 allegations by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger that the department was reallocating reading money to maintain a “bloated” bureaucracy — charges DPI leaders vehemently denied.

Atkinson says DPI sought to use the money to hire statewide personnel to implement Read to Achieve provisions, but the agency dropped that effort after Berger’s 2016 accusations because “it wasn’t worth the fight.”

Republican state lawmakers behind 2011’s Excellent Public Schools Act tagged the cash for local governments to spend on a system of early grade assessments and multi-week summer reading camps for third-graders with limited reading proficiency who would not otherwise be eligible for the fourth grade.

Local governments sometimes don’t spend the funding for multiple reasons, experts say. Alternative assessments, lower-than-expected enrollment in summer reading camps and legislators’ decision to ease “mandatory” summer reading camp requirements for struggling children played a part, according to Atkinson and Price.

Johnson did not respond to Policy Watch questions this week, but the superintendent is in the midst of planning the agency’s 2018 audit. State budget requirements approved by GOP legislators this year mandated a DPI audit by an independent agency, which has yet to be named.

Results are to be provided to the legislature by May 1, including a report that details potential cost-savings, activities not related to state or federal policies, “unnecessary” positions within the agency or programs that are “ineffective, cumbersome, or no longer functioning as intended by federal or state law or policy.”

As Policy Watch has reported, the Republican-controlled General Assembly has ordered more than $22 million in cuts to the K-12 agency since 2009, spurring complaints that lawmakers are intentionally starving North Carolina’s top public school administration, which was long under the control of a Democrat until Johnson’s victory last November.

The agency provides oversight as well as professional development and intervention in some of North Carolina’s struggling school districts. But Republican leaders have often characterized DPI as a wasteful and unaccountable bureaucracy.

Johnson and the State Board of Education clashed publicly over legislative cuts last month, with board members calling on the superintendent to more ardently advocate for DPI within the legislature. But Johnson mostly rebuffed those calls, saying that he preferred to make his case for the agency in private meetings with lawmakers and not through the media.

The superintendent also claimed that he had discovered “disturbing” spending within the agency, which he later elaborated on to include Read to Achieve reversion money.

State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey, a Republican appointed by McCrory in 2013, told Policy Watch last week that while he supports any efforts to find spending inefficiencies, he does not believe Johnson and legislators should use Read to Achieve as an example of the agency’s failed spending priorities.

“Any money we don’t use goes back into the pot to be re-appropriated,” said Cobey. “So that’s not wasted money. That’s just money to be spent later in the state. And I think normally that the General Assembly and the taxpayers would be glad that we don’t spend all the money that’s appropriated.”

However, Cobey said he believes the state and its local governments should be more aggressively spending to improve reading levels in elementary students.

“I want everybody, including our superintendent, to be looking and finding wasteful spending,” Cobey said. “But I don’t particularly see this as an example.”

Meanwhile, Cobey said he believes the dispute with the legislature over Read to Achieve funding was a “huge misunderstanding.”

“It was regrettable, because it didn’t foster good relationships,” he added.

North Carolina’s rollout of the legislature’s Read to Achieve law has been a point of contention for more than five years. The GOP-backed program, which was intended to ensure that all students are reading at or above grade level by the end of third grade, includes pivotal elementary assessments that determine whether a student advances or is retained in the third grade.

It also allows for summer reading camps and tutoring for students struggling to meet grade-level requirements in third grade.

But critics said state legislators failed to properly fund the new reading mandates, stressing local school boards and teachers. Some have also blamed the reading initiative for purported “over-testing” in the lower grades. Local governments that were loath to leave a student’s ability to pass third grade up to one standardized test launched new interim testing assessments.

Reducing the testing load was a central component of Johnson’s campaign last year, although the superintendent, members of the State Board of Education and the legislature were criticized this year for their draft of an all-encompassing K-12 plan for the federal government that was perceived to continue the state’s reliance on frequent, high-stakes testing.

Atkinson said the state must continue to rethink how it enforces its reading requirements, making summer camps more accessible and rethinking longer summer breaks that advocates blame for “learning loss” in some children.

But the former superintendent also called on state leaders to eschew the frequent legislative funding cuts for DPI that stir up controversy each year during budget negotiations.

“It looks to me that all these cuts really make the department inconsequential to school districts in the state,” Atkinson said. “More and more schools are coming together to have to take on certain initiatives and, generally speaking, it is advantageous to the taxpayer to do the work one time for 115 school districts rather than having 115 school districts do everything one time.”

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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.