Harrison yields control of DPI

The Perdue appointee steps aside after a court ruling gives Superintendent June Atkinson the authority.

STAFF WRITERJuly 23, 2009 

After only six months as state schools CEO, William Harrison said Wednesday afternoon that he will retire from the job of running the education agency on Aug. 31.

Harrison will relinquish his $265,000 salary but will continue to guide policy as the unpaid chairman of the State Board of Education.

His announcement comes days after elected schools Superintendent June Atkinson won a lawsuit giving her authority to run the Department of Public Instruction, the state agency that oversees testing, curriculum and policy for 115 local districts in North Carolina. Atkinson suggested in an interview earlier this week that Harrison should leave his CEO job as she takes charge of the department and its staff of about 780.

Harrison's decision to step aside is a setback for Gov. Beverly Perdue, who had handpicked him to be her point man on education. Perdue, whose key platform has been improving education, lost her gamble to control the agency by creating her own czar in Harrison.

In an e-mail to DPI employees, Harrison said he had spent too much time on the lawsuit.

"As Chairman of the State Board of Education, I want my focus to be on the 1.4 million students in this state, not on a court case," he wrote. "Six months ago, Governor Perdue asked me to help her transform North Carolina's public school system and I will continue to work with her and Superintendent Atkinson to do so."

He and Atkinson had planned to meet today, with their lawyers present, to discuss next steps, Atkinson said. With his decision to retire, that meeting has been canceled.

Atkinson's case came down to differing interpretations of the constitution and state law. The constitution says the board supervises the public school system. It also says the superintendent is the board's secretary and chief administrative officer.

The superintendent, according to the constitution, is one of the elected state officers whose "duties shall be prescribed by law."

A 1995 law describes administrative duties for the superintendent and says they are subject to the direction, control and approval of the school board.

Harrison said that the lawsuit to clarify the murky law started as a small distraction but grew in the past three days as questions swirled about what he would do now that a judge ruled Atkinson has the authority to run the department.

"I didn't go up there for that," the former Cumberland County schools superintendent said in an interview. "I went up there to see what we could do for the children of North Carolina."

Harrison, 56, noted negative public comment about his $265,000 annual salary and decided it had become a "lightning rod."

Harrison said he's looking forward to digging in on the policy side, and will keep his office at the education building in Raleigh.

"I'm excited," he said. "I think I have plenty of work to do."

In a telephone interview, Atkinson, 60, praised Harrison's decision.

"I think he did a noble thing," she said. "He has made great contributions to public education. I think this is an example of where he put the children and the organization of DPI first."

'Back to business'

Perdue had concentrated power in Harrison. She had the state education board hire him as CEO and make him board chairman. That made him the first person to hold a dual role as both leader of the policy-making board and manager in charge of implementing those policies.

But the decision triggered an internal struggle that might have hurt the schools during a critical year in which state education is facing deep budget cuts, some education advocates say.

John Dornan, head of a Raleigh education think tank, said DPI's credibility has suffered because lawmakers don't know who speaks for the schools. It remains to be seen whether the state's public school leadership can get itself together, said Dornan, executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

"I think he did a very admirable thing and at least has cleared the deck to get the organization back to business again," Dorman said of Harrison.

Dornan hopes lawmakers will ultimately pass legislation asking voters to decide whether the state superintendent should be elected or appointed to lead the education agency.

Focus on the children

DPI helps shape the school experiences of 1.4 million public school children.

The department runs the testing program that determines whether students are learning at grade level. It acts as an agent of the federal government in administering the No Child Left Behind law, and sends help to schools and districts with significant numbers of struggling students.

The department is in the middle of extensive curriculum revisions that will lead to new lessons and tests within the next five years.

Harrison came to his state job as a heralded superintendent who was known for supporting innovations. For example, the state project that allows students to take courses online got its start in Cumberland under Harrison.

Perdue applauded Harrison's move. In a statement she said, "Dr. Harrison's decision today to devote his time to leading the State Board of Education exemplifies what I've known all along -- that his real commitment is not to a title or to a paycheck, but to securing a world class education system for our children. During this legal dispute, the focus on our kids has been lost in the courtroom. Dr. Harrison's move today puts the focus back where it belongs -- on the classroom."

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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