Sheehan

Atkinson steps up like Haig

Staff WriterFebruary 9, 2009 

Go, June, go!

Ahem. Make that: Proceed apace, Dr. June Atkinson, state superintendent of public instruction.

In one week's time, Atkinson went from educational ambassador, smiling as the governor pulled the rug out from under her, to -- North Carolina's answer to Al Haig.

You remember Haig's signature moment as secretary of state. After President Reagan was shot, Haig barked, "I am in control here."

Well, Atkinson didn't bark as much as emit a menacing purr. In a letter to legislative leaders, she made it clear she's sick of the ridiculous management structure at the state's Department of Public Instruction and she wants the authority to do the job she was elected to do.

Although the state schools superintendent was once one of the most powerful figures in state government, over time changes in the constitution and the law have eroded the position.

Now, the new governor wants to carve off what little authority remains. At a news conference that Atkinson attended (see "smiling," above), Perdue announced that Cumberland County Superintendent Bill Harrison will soon take over the day-to-day operations of DPI and head up the state board.

In her letter, Atkinson asked House Speaker Joe Hackney and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight to clarify who is in control -- even if it means asking voters to make her job appointed rather than elected.

I raised the same issues in a recent column. I also described Atkinson as essentially another Miss North Carolina, representing the state's little children without any real power.

That column, I'm told, made Atkinson cry.

Afterward, Atkinson sent me a message, attaching a copy of the statutes describing the role of the superintendent and noting that it says nothing about a queenly wave. Touche.

I replied in e-mail that while the column may have offended her personally, the organization of the department is what I was really aiming at. I noted that the superintendent is the only member of the Council of State who does not have the authority to run her own department.

Atkinson and I finally met Thursday afternoon.

Atkinson said she didn't know about Harrison's appointment until a few hours before the news conference. She said she didn't understand until later just how vast his authority will be. Hence, her letter.

How legislative leaders will respond remains to be seen. Basnight has said he wishes the superintendents were appointed but doubts voters would agree to give up their vote. He's probably right.

The day after Atkinson sent the letter, Perdue asked the current deputy superintendent, who's in charge of day-to day operations, to stay on until Harrison arrives. Worried about a coup?

Atkinson stressed, "I support Gov. Perdue's education agenda and want to be a part of the team moving it forward. ... I just felt it was time to say something."

I'm glad she did. Everyone agrees this is a mess that needs fixing.

Forget the tiara. Al Haig's in town.

ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4828

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