Superintendent, state board both claim victory in court case over who runs NC schools

Both State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson and the State Board of Education are claiming victory in a N.C. Supreme Court ruling over who is in charge of running North Carolina's public schools.

In a 6-0 decision released Friday, the Supreme Court upheld a three-judge panel's ruling that declared as constitutional a 2016 state law transferring some of the State Board of Education's powers to the superintendent. Johnson said that the ruling means he's in charge now of the state Department of Public Instruction.

"Today's ruling validates the common-sense position that the duly-elected Superintendent of Public instruction should lead the Department of Public Instruction," Johnson said in a statement Friday. "I am looking forward to putting this lawsuit behind us and working with board members to strengthen public education in North Carolina."

But the state board was also claiming victory Friday.

“We are pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision, which reaffirms that the State Board of Education — and not the Superintendent of Public Instruction — has the ultimate authority under the Constitution to supervise and administer the state’s public school system," said Bob Orr and Drew Erteschik, attorneys for the state board.

"We are also pleased that, while the Court stopped short of invalidating this particular legislation on its face, the Court unanimously declared that the Board has the final say on ‘the mechanics of the relationship between the Board and the Superintendent, as well as how their respective departments will operate internally,'" the attorneys said as they quoted from the opinion.

Johnson, 34, became the first Republican elected superintendent of schools in North Carolina in more than 100 years in 2016. In that same election, Democratic challenger Roy Cooper defeated Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Republicans make up a majority of the state board, but the terms for six of the 11 members appointed by the governor will expire by 2019.

A month after the 2016 election, state legislators shifted some of the powers of the state board to Johnson, including control of high-level hiring and spending at DPI. For instance, the new law says the superintendent is the head of DPI and that the Office of Charter Schools reports to him.

Johnson has been an ally of the Republican-led legislature while the state board has been critical of a number of the decisions made by lawmakers.

State lawmakers have backed Johnson through the case, budgeting money for him to defend the lawsuit and to hire his own staff, some of whom have been former McCrory staffers. Legislators barred the state board from using additional taxpayer money in the legal fight.

A three-judge panel of Superior Court judges sided in July 2017 with Johnson and legislators. But the law has been on hold, with the Supreme Court agreeing to the board’s request to expedite the appeal and hear the case.

It's been a contentious fight, with the state board warning in court filings that letting the law go into effect would “generate enormous disruption for our State’s public schools” and empower Johnson to unilaterally fire up to 1,000 DPI employees. But Johnson has said in his affidavits that the state board is preventing him from hiring the people he wanted for some top positions.

The state board had argued that legislators were unconstitutionally trying to strip it of its powers by giving them to Johnson. But the high court found a place for both in running the public schools.

"The Superintendent has been assigned responsibility for managing and administering the day-to-day operations of the school system, subject to rules and regulations adopted by the Board, with this allocation of responsibility between the Superintendent and the Board appearing to us to avoid an invasion of the Board's constitutionally based authority to generally supervise and administer the public school system while admittedly giving the Superintendent greater immediate administrative authority," Justice Sam “Jimmy” Ervin IV wrote in the court's decision.

The high court decision comes during a challenging period for the state Department of Public Instruction, which is facing a $5.1 million budget cut this year that Johnson and the state board unsuccessfully tried to get lawmakers to put on hold. State board members have warned that layoffs will likely be necessary.

An audit ordered by state lawmakers recommended ways to transform DPI, something Johnson says he will look to implement.

"While it is unfortunate that it took more than a year and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to resolve this matter, the positive news is that we will be able to utilize the data-driven analysis to reorganize DPI to help the agency focus on its core mission of supporting educators, students and parents across North Carolina," Johnson said.

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