Education

Judges delay giving NC superintendent control over the education department

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

State Superintendent Mark Johnson will have to wait at least a month before gaining more control over the running of North Carolina’s public schools, a three-judge panel ruled Thursday.

The judges agreed to continue delaying by 30 days its July ruling that upheld a state law that shifts more control over public education operations to Johnson. In requesting the stay, the State Board of Education had argued that letting the ruling go into effect now “will generate enormous disruption for our State’s public schools” – a charge denied by Johnson.

“We are pleased the court has blocked this law for another month to allow the appellate courts to consider the case,” Bill Cobey, chairman of the state board, said in a statement.

In a court filing, the board said the new law “will move the entire $10 billion public school system under the control of a single individual for the first time in North Carolina history.” The board also said the law empowered Johnson “to take drastic action,” such as unilaterally firing more than 1,000 employees at the state Department of Public Instruction.

In an affidavit, Johnson said it would be false to say the law gives him sole control of the public school system. He also called the board’s statement that he could fire more than 1,000 people a “falsehood” and a “hysterical claim.”

“I am disappointed by the court’s ruling today,” Johnson said in a statement. “Chairman Cobey and Vice Chair (A.L.) Collins are vigorously defending the status quo for our education system at the expense of students, educators, and taxpayers.

“I am confident I will eventually be able to lead the positive transformation for our schools that the people of North Carolina voted for over 10 months ago.”

In December, state lawmakers passed a law that shifts some of the powers of the state board to Johnson, including control of high-level hiring and spending at DPI. In its lawsuit, the board said the legislature was trying to take away responsibilities conferred by the state constitution.

In its July ruling, the panel of Superior Court judges said the board had failed to prove that any part of the law was unconstitutional. The ruling said the law does not transfer power to Johnson, but lets him manage daily operations with board oversight. The law puts limits on the superintendent’s powers, and maintains the board as the ultimate authority to supervise and administer the public school system, the ruling said.

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 state board is appealing the July ruling.

The judges anticipated appeals, so in July they put on hold for 60 days any actions based on the ruling. The stay expired Tuesday, leading to this week’s court hearing.

The fight over the new law was an intra-party disagreement, with the Republican-dominated board disagreeing with a law passed by the GOP-controlled legislature that gives more powers to Johnson, a Republican in his first term.

The law gives Johnson the power to hire and fire top staff. The board has been approving some new hires, and some high-level staff members report to both Johnson and the board.

In an affidavit, Johnson said he was not able to hire people he wanted for top jobs, and that the board took too long to find new staff.

Some of that tension was highlighted last week when the board hired Stacey Wilson-Norman, a deputy superintendent in Durham Public Schools, to be the state’s new chief academic officer. Johnson had asked the board to delay the vote.

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

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