NC Republicans fighting among themselves over education, court papers show

N.C. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson
N.C. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

The State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson are on opposite sides of a legal battle over who controls public education.

Lawyers for both sides filed court documents in the case this week, asking a three-judge panel to decide the case in their favor.

The state education board is suing the state over a law passed in December that transfers some of its powers to Johnson, who is serving his first term. Johnson has entered the suit on the state’s side. Republicans run both the legislature and the state education board, and Johnson is a Republican.

Lawyers for the state board said the law is unconstitutional, while Johnson said he should be able to do the job voters elected him to do.

Johnson said in an affidavit that the state board has stopped him from hiring the people he wanted for the jobs of chief financial officer and deputy superintendent at the Department of Public Instruction.

The documents provide insights into the tensions between Johnson and the board that surfaced last week at a state board meeting. Johnson extolled the work of people he has hired, adding that they were taking on tasks that a deputy superintendent and chief of staff would do. Both those jobs are vacant.

Later, when board Vice Chairman A.L. Collins directed a question to Johnson, Johnson told Collins he should ask the deputy superintendent.

On Wednesday, Johnson asked the three-judge panel hearing the case to throw out the board’s lawsuit.

Johnson said in an affidavit that the system the state board has for hiring people who report both to him and the board doesn’t work.

Instead of the person Johnson wanted for chief financial officer, the state board hired Adam Levinson.

Levinson held a number of jobs at DPI when Democrat June Atkinson was superintendent. Johnson said Levinson represented “more of the same.”

Levinson said in a email Thursday that it would not be appropriate for him to respond to Johnson’s affidavit.

Johnson said in the affidavit that he does not have a chief of staff because the board hasn’t figured out a process for hiring one.

“Having both the State Board and the Superintendent of Public Instruction – up to 14 individuals in total – involved in the day-to-day management of DPI slows decision making to a crawl and makes it difficult to implement any changes or be responsive to the needs of the education community,” Johnson said in the affidavit.

Lawyers for the state board, in their request to have the lawsuit decided in their favor, said the new law is clearly unconstitutional.

The law essentially takes language from the constitution that says the state board supervises and administers the free public schools and puts the superintendent of public instruction in its place, they wrote.

“It is a bedrock principle of constitutional law that when a constitution expressly confers certain powers and duties on an entity, those powers and duties cannot be transferred to a different entity without a constitutional amendment,” lawyers for the state board wrote.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner