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Officials Spar Over Limits Of State Superintendent Of Education's Power

The January 2020 State Board of Education meeting room empties out as the board goes into closed session.
Cole del Charco
The January 2020 State Board of Education meeting room empties out as the board goes into closed session.

When North Carolina voters go to the polls on Super Tuesday, they will be faced with making a preliminary selection on who should be the next Superintendent of Public Instruction. It’s a position that directs an enormous amount of state and other funds. But it’s also a role that is poorly defined, and, currently, a source of contention.

At a North Carolina Board of Education meeting in January, current State Superintendent Mark Johnson phoned in late to the day-long meeting. He quickly began a long, repetitive description of  background information. 

There were audible groans from board members, and exasperated facial expressions, before and during several attempts to interrupt Superintendent Johnson. Finally, board member J.B. Buxton had had enough.

“Mr. Superintendent, let me intervene with a question here,” Buxton said. “I want to try to get to the heart of the matter…”

The Board and the Superintendent have been at odds almost since Johnson was elected in 2016. Soon after, he worked with Republican leadership in the General Assembly to give his position more power over spending decisions. 

From L-R, FAST NC steering committee members State Supt. Mark Johnson, former State Supt. Mike Ward, former Asst. Secretary of Education Henry Johnson, former State Board Chair Phil Kirk and former State Supt. June Atkinson
Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC
Superintendent Mark Johnson (left) poses with members of a committee including former State Supt. June Atkinson (far right) at the state Department of Public Instruction building.

Johnson is hardly the first Superintendent to clash with others, even in his own party. His predecessor, Democrat June Atkinson, sued Democratic Governor Bev Perdue for attempting to take away some of her powers. Atkinson won in court, but while the case was being adjudicated, she and the Board worked fairly well together. 

In the board room after last month's contentious meeting, the current chair of the State Board of Education Eric Davis shared his thoughts on the position. 

“It’s worked well when the Superintendent and the Board work as a team,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, the last three years, I feel that the State Board and the Superintendent have been pitted against each other.”

Board members are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the General Assembly. They serve eight-year terms. Davis said having an appointed State Board was designed to stabilize the education system, by supposedly keeping members more insulated from the winds of political change every election.

“And the more that you can create stability and protect the public school system from drastic changes in politics and individual votes, the better outcomes for students,” Davis said. “Because again, it’s about creating an environment for learning that’s founded on stability and certainty and thoughtful leadership.”

Around a dozen states in the U.S. have a similar format - an elected superintendent and appointed board of education. But, when asked, Davis said it may be time to reassess whether the Superintendent of Public Instruction should be elected after all. 

“The opportunity for an appointed Superintendent does create the chance to hire a seasoned, skilled, experienced professional educator to come in and lead our Department of Public Instruction,” he said.

That change isn’t happening in this election cycle. Johnson has decided to run for  Lieutenant Governor. Five Democrats and two Republicans have filed to replace him as State Superintendent. 

But no matter who wins, some believe the problems will continue, as long as there is an appointed State Board of Education. 

Republican State Senator Chuck Edwards of Hendersonville is one of those who hopes to change that.

“It appears to me that that's simply a bureaucracy that can't be held accountable to any entity and that more times than not seems to be getting in the way of an elected official,” Edwards said.

Edwards and GOP Senate Leader Phil Berger have both indicated they would like to restructure educational leadership in the state. 

If a bill ever makes it out of the General Assembly, North Carolina voters would get a chance to weigh in on it.  It would have to take the form of an amendment to the State Constitution, which requires a statewide referendum vote. 

Cole del Charco is an audio producer and writer based in Durham. He's made stories for public radio's All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Marketplace. Before joining Due South, he spent time as a freelance journalist, an education and daily news reporter for WUNC, and a podcast producer for WFAE in Charlotte.
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