Politics & Government

State Board of Education chairman resigns, saying it’s time for new leaders

Bill Cobey is resigning as chairman of the State Board of Education.
Bill Cobey is resigning as chairman of the State Board of Education. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Bill Cobey, chairman of the State Board of Education, submitted his resignation Thursday.

Cobey, who has been board chairman since he was sworn into office in April 2013, said he decided to leave the board at the same time that his term as chairman ends in September. His resignation is effective at the end of the Sept. 6 meeting, when a new board chairperson is elected.

Cobey’s term on the board officially would have ended in March 2019, but he said he decided within the past month to resign early. Cobey’s early resignation means Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper will be able to appoint a successor to finish out the term.

“I’m finishing up a term as chairman in September,” Cobey said in an interview. “I’ve been chairman for 5 1/2 years and my term ends next March. I thought I’d prefer room for the new leaders to lead.”

Cobey said he wanted to avoid being in the same situation that has affected fellow board members Wayne McDevitt and Tricia Willoughby, who are both serving even though their terms expired March 2017. The General Assembly rejected Cooper’s nominees to replace them in July.

“They’ve been wonderful to stay on,” Cobey said. “They can speak for themselves. The board needs a full complement of members because the workload continues to increase.”

Cobey, 79, of Chapel Hill, said he wanted to fully enjoy his retirement as he’ll be cutting back on his volunteer activities. Cobey’s long career of public service has included being a U.S. congressmen, a chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party and a candidate for governor.

Cobey had been nominated to the state board by former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

Despite being a Republican, Cobey clashed with the GOP-led General Assembly over several of their education policies, including being part of a lawsuit challenging a 2016 state law that transferred some of the state board’s powers to State Schools Superintndent Mark Johnson.

Relations between the board and Johnson, the first Republican elected as state superintendent in 100 years, have been rocky as the case made its way through the courts. In June, the state Supreme Court upheld the 2016 state law, and Johnson has since put into place a plan for reorganizing the state Department of Public Instruction.

“The relationship between the board and superintendent has improved and will continue to do so,” Cobey said. “Some things have been worked out.”

Cobey said his resignation had nothing to do with the legal fight.

He cited efforts to regulate charter schools, which are taxpayer funded schools that are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow, as among his highlights while serving on the state board.

“It’s been great serving with an outstanding group of people,” Cobey said. “The public charter school situation was not well settled when I became the chairman. I think we’ve got an excellent process now for selecting new charters and disciplining and terminating charter schools that are not performing.”

Former state Schools Superintendent June Atkinson, a Democrat, tweeted Thursday that it’s sad that Cobey is leaving. Although they came from different political parties, they enjoyed both a strong working and personal relationship.

“He has served NC educators & students in an exemplary manner by putting students first,” Atkinson tweeted. “What an honor & privilege to have worked with him.”

Cobey also drew praise Thursday from Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators.

“Chairman Cobey has served our students, educators and public schools well and has offered stability in a time of excessive legislative power grabs on public education.” Jewell tweeted. “He has always put students first and we deeply appreciate his commitment to our schools.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer