RALEIGH — Multiple ethics complaints filed on Thursday accuse State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson of misusing his position by accessing a state database to send what they say was a politically motivated mass text message to parents and teachers.

Johnson sent 540,000 text messages and 800,000 email messages Tuesday to parents and educators telling them he opposes Common Core and asking them to take an online survey about the education standards. Opposition to Common Core is a major part of Johnson’s campaign to become North Carolina’s next lieutenant governor.

The complaints say the messages were designed for Johnson’s personal gain as opposed to being for official purposes as superintendent. The complaints say the messages were meant to coincide with this week’s start of early voting before the March 3 primary.

“Mark Johnson’s use of state resources for personal campaign purposes has been a pattern for quite some time,” Justin Parmenter told The News & Observer on Thursday. “However, actually pulling personal cell phone numbers that local school districts have collected from employees and families in good faith and using them for his disingenuous Common Core campaign stunt is a new low.”

Parmenter, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg language arts teacher, said at least 10 complaints were filed Thursday by educators and parents across the state, including himself. Parmenter has been a frequent critic of Johnson since he was elected in 2016.

Kathleen Edwards, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said state law prevents staff from disclosing any information about ethics complaints that may have been filed.

Graham Wilson, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Instruction, questioned Parmenter’s motives for the complaint. Wilson brought up Parmenter’s attacks on Johnson for switching to the Istation program for testing students under Read To Achieve.

“This blogger should be considering his own ethics given that he continues to push harmful lies about DPI (over selection of Istation),” Wilson said Thursday. “...This is another disingenuous attempt to discredit Superintendent Johnson’s efforts to listen to actual parents and teachers, instead of Elitist Insiders.”

Johnson is in a crowded field of Republican candidates running for lieutenant governor. Conservatives have been particularly critical of Common Core, viewing it as an attempt to try to create a national curriculum.

Common Core standards were developed under the sponsorship of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and were presented as the way to better prepare students for college and jobs, The N&O previously reported.

Timing of mass text questioned

Critics complained that the state rushed Common Core into classrooms without getting input from teachers or advising them adequately on how to teach it.

The State Board of Education revised the standards in 2017, but Johnson contends the board essentially retained Common Core standards under a different name.

At last week’s State Board of Education meeting, Johnson announced he’s calling for a review of Common Core and would survey parents and teachers about the math and language arts standards. He also brought up his election campaign during the announcement.

“This time next year, if all goes according to plan for me as my plan has it, I’d like to be sitting here as lieutenant governor and actually have a vote on this board and vote for the new standards as well,” Johnson said at the board meeting. In North Carolina, the lieutenant governor is a voting member of the State Board of Education.

Johnson has periodically sent mass emails about education issues. But Tuesday was the first time he sent a mass text.

Wilson said the email addresses and phone numbers came from information provided by parents and educators to school districts. He said that information is stored electronically for information and outreach.

After the first text message went out, a second one on Tuesday told recipients they could opt out of future notifications from DPI.

Chelsea Bartel, a school psychologist and Durham school parent, said they gave their “phone numbers to schools in good faith that they will not spam us.” She said the texts caused her to submit a complaint on Thursday.

“The timing of it was the last straw,” Bartel said in an interview. “It’s another thing Mark Johnson has done to abuse his power and getting away with behavior that is not acceptable.”

Parmenter says Johnson crossed the line with his actions this week.

“Our elected officials should carry out the duties of their offices with integrity and abide by state ethics guidelines. When they don’t, they need to be held accountable,” Parmenter said.

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