Updated at 8:41 p.m.
State Superintendent Mark Johnson has made an emergency purchase of more than $900,000 so that elementary schools can continue to use Istation while a legal fight continues over the program.
North Carolina elementary schools were left without a program to test students under the Read To Achieve program after a judge declined Tuesday to lift a stay that blocks Istation from getting a new three-year, $8.3 million testing contract.
Late Tuesday night, Johnson sent an email to school districts announcing that the state Department of Public Instruction had executed an “emergency purchase” of Istation “in order to ensure the continuation of our obligations under the Read to Achieve legislation.”
The contract is worth $928,570 and runs to March 31. Johnson told State Board of Education members Wednesday evening that he had to act to give clarity to school districts who are conducting the Read To Achieve assessments right now.
“This is strictly for an emergency situation where you have to go make an immediate purchase of services and if you don’t it will result in the cessation of an important program,” Johnson said.
State board members distanced themselves Wednesday from the emergency contract. In a heated exchange with Johnson, board members questioned the amount of the contract and said they had been unable to get a copy from DPI staff.
“That clarifies that the state board didn’t have a role in this emergency procurement,” said Eric Davis, chairman of the state board.
Johnson said board members could have gotten a copy of the contract if they had contacted someone on DPI staff who reported to him. Johnson pointed to how DPI responded promptly to media requests for the contract.
Since the Read To Achieve program began in 2013, K-3 students have read out loud to their teachers while the teachers use Amplify Education’s mClass program to assess their skills.
In June, Johnson announced he was awarding the new Read To Achieve testing contract to Istation, which tests students on a computer program, with the results being provided to teachers.
The decision to switch programs has been controversial, with teachers across the state questioning the change.
Istation vs. Amplify for reading contract
Public records show an evaluation committee formed by Johnson had ranked mClass ahead of Istation.
Johnson has accused the evaluation committee of “employing biased procedures” that benefited Amplify and of making false statements about Istation. He also said that some committee members violated the confidentiality of the procurement process by discussing it with outsiders.
Johnson went on to form a new committee that recommended Istation.
Amplify appealed the decision to the state Department of Information Technology, which granted the stay in August while it hears the appeal of the contract. Due to the stay, Johnson worked out a deal with Istation to train teachers for free in the new program. But that agreement expired in December.
On Dec. 9, Jonathan Shaw, the chief counsel for DIT, upheld the stay, saying there’s sufficient information to believe DPI violated the law and “jeopardized the integrity and fairness of the procurement process.” Johnson responded with a blistering statement accusing Shaw of being incompetent and making “factual errors” in his order.
DPI appealed to Superior Court, saying that its ability to provide students with their state constitutional right to a sound basic education would be harmed if the stay wasn’t lifted. Wake County Superior Court Judge Graham Shirley issued a temporary stay on the DIT order on Dec. 23 that lasted until Tuesday’s hearing.
Superior Court Judge Mary Ann Tally said Tuesday she didn’t believe she had jurisdiction in the case while it was still being heard by DIT. This prompted Johnson to say that he was exploring other options to ensure that students, teachers, and parents continue to have access to a reading diagnostic tool this year. “
DIT will hold a hearing next week on the contract. If the issue isn’t resolved by March 31, Johnson said he could extend the emergency contract through the end of the school year.
“We are honored to be able to support the students and educators of North Carolina through this new contract with the Department of Public Instruction,” Ossa Fisher, president of Istation, said in a statement Wednesday. “We are glad we were chosen to help DPI fulfill their constitutional obligation and continue the work we started earlier this academic year.”