Who's really in charge of NC's public schools? State board and superintendent spar.

The NC Board of Education said they would appeal three-judge panel ruling in 2017

Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey said in July he was disappointed in the three-judge panel decision in favor of a new law that gives Superintendent Mark Johnson more power.
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Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey said in July he was disappointed in the three-judge panel decision in favor of a new law that gives Superintendent Mark Johnson more power.

The fight over who is running North Carolina's public schools remains unsettled, with both the State Board of Education and Superintendent Mark Johnson insisting they're in charge.

Both sides claimed victory in a state Supreme Court decision released in June that upheld a 2016 state law transferring some of the state board's powers to Johnson. In a statement released Monday night, state board chairman Bill Cobey accused Johnson of overstepping the court decision by working with legislators to pass a new law in June that strips the board of power to oversee the state's public schools.

Despite the new law, Cobey says the board will continue to pass rules and regulations that govern Johnson's ability to run the state Department of Public Instruction.

"The public can rest assured that the Board will continue to oversee the actions of the Superintendent and his staff to ensure accountability and good outcomes for our public education system," Cobey said.

Lindsey Wakely, chief of staff and legal counsel to Johnson, said in a statement Monday night that the state board should accept that it lost the lawsuit.

"Despite losing his lawsuit, Chairman Cobey appears determined to ignore the will of both the General Assembly and the Supreme Court of North Carolina and continue to waste taxpayer dollars on his frivolous lawsuit," Wakely said. "The state of North Carolina and Mark Johnson won. Cobey lost.

"Mark Johnson will manage the N.C. Department of Public Instruction with the full authorities granted to the superintendent per House Bill 17."

Johnson, 34, in 2016 became the first Republican elected superintendent of schools in North Carolina in more than 100 years. A month after the election, the Republican-led state legislature passed House Bill 17 to put Johnson in charge of the day-to-day operations of the state's public school system.

The new law prompted the state board to sue the state and Johnson.

After the June court decision, Cobey says, the board reached out to Johnson to see whether they could work together as long as the superintendent continued to follow the board's rules and regulations. Cobey accused Johnson of rebuffing the board and instead working with the legislature to pass House Bill 374, which repeals board rules saying that it's in charge of administering the public school system and education funds.

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed House Bill 374, but it was overridden by lawmakers.

"The Superintendent turned to the General Assembly for new, top-down decision-making powers that would imperil our public school system," Cobey says in the statement.

State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson and State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey pose for a picture at the State Board meeting in August. T. Keung Hui khui@newsobserver.com

Hardy Lewis, Johnson's attorney in the lawsuit, said that the superintendent didn't request the new law. But Lewis said that Johnson did support it when he learned that it had been filed.

"Once the General Assembly has spoken on the issue and conferred authority, there's limits to the oversight that the state board can exercise through rule making," Lewis said.

But Bob Orr, an attorney for the state board, said his clients feel they need to respond because House Bill 374 would leave the board with no real authority over the state's public schools.

"It will come to a head when the superintendent says, 'I’m firing x and hiring y,' and the state board says, 'I don’t approve that,'" Orr said. "What happens next?"

The new fight comes after Johnson announced Friday that 40 DPI employees would be laid off and 21 vacant positions would be cut to meet a $5.1 million budget required by the General Assembly. The majority of the cuts are in the division that works with low-performing schools and districts.

Additionally, state lawmakers rejected last week two of Cooper's three nominees to the state board. The votes came after state lawmakers put on the November ballot a constitutional amendment that would transfer appointments of boards from Cooper to the legislature.

The new amendment could cover the State Board of Education.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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