Ann Majestic, nationally recognized education lawyer, dies at 61

Former School Superintendent Del Burns and attorney Ann Majestic review  a statement.
Former School Superintendent Del Burns and attorney Ann Majestic review a statement. News & Observer file photo

Funeral services are scheduled for Wednesday for Ann Majestic, the longtime attorney for the Wake County school board and a nationally recognized expert in education law.

Majestic, 61, died Saturday in her longtime home in Durham’s Trinity Park neighborhood after a battle with breast cancer. During more than 30 years as an education-law attorney, Majestic figured prominently in some of North Carolina’s most important legal disputes over education, including the Leandro school funding case and Wake County’s battles over student assignment.

“She is one of those people who won’t be replaced,” said Wake school board member Kevin Hill. “She will only be followed.”

Majestic was the lead attorney in the education-law section of Tharrington Smith, the Raleigh-based law firm whose clients include many of the state’s 115 school systems. A major client is the Wake County school system, where Majestic served as the board’s attorney for more than 20 years.

Majestic helped Wake navigate the changing legal climate on school assignment by advising the district to switch from using race to family income to produce diverse student enrollments. She spoke at conferences around the nation on school diversity.

When the Wake school board shifted in 2009 to a Republican-backed majority, she defended the new leadership’s efforts to eliminate busing for diversity. Majestic overcame the skepticism of Republican board members who considered switching law firms.

“She was just extremely fair,” said former Wake school board member Ron Margiotta, who chaired the board from 2009 to 2011. “I gained confidence in her quite quickly. Ann Majestic was the best.”

After the 2011 election shifted Wake’s school board back to a Democratic majority, Majestic worked with the new leadership on how to restore diversity as an element in student assignment.

“She was a real warrior for her clients and she cared not a whit for politics,” said Wade Smith, one of the founders of Tharrington Smith. “She was a wonderfully focused and courageous lawyer on behalf of the people she represented.”

Majestic also served as attorney for several other school boards, including Durham’s.

Majestic’s work at Tharrington Smith put her on statewide education issues, including representing the urban school districts in the Leandro lawsuit over funding for poor students. The lawsuit resulted in the state Supreme Court upholding a lower court’s ruling that the “sound basic education” required by the state constitution includes a competent, well-trained teacher, an effective principal and sufficient resources.

Majestic was recognized locally in 1998, receiving the Distinguished Service Award of the North Carolina Bar Association for outstanding service to the education-law section.

On the national stage, Majestic was the chair of the National School Boards Association’s Council of Schools Attorneys from 1998 to 1999. In 2012, she received the association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Sonja H. Trainor, director of the NSBA’s Council of Schools Attorneys, called Majestic “a pillar of the national school-law community” who mentored and befriended school attorneys across the country.

“Ann had a unique and infectious combination of powerful advocacy and gentle grace,” Trainor said. “We valued her leadership on key areas of school law, including the landmark Leandro litigation in North Carolina. Her strong mind and kind character will be missed.”

Initially, Majestic planned to be a college administrator. But she applied to Duke University law school after receiving encouragement from her longtime mentor, former governor and then Duke President Terry Sanford.

“I went to law school to have a job that offered challenge, variety and no ceiling,” Majestic said in a 1994 interview.

Majestic is survived by her husband, Hank, two adult children and a grandson.

Services will be held at 3 p.m. Wednesday at First Presbyterian Church, 305 E. Main St. in Durham.

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