Politics & Government

NC Board of Education and superintendent still clashing over who’s running schools

CMS school board member Eric Davis works prior to a public hearing before the board’s vote on boundary changes on May 24, 2017 at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center in Charlotte, NC.  Davis, who is no longer on the CMS school board, was elected chairman of the State Board of Education on Sept. 6, 2018.
CMS school board member Eric Davis works prior to a public hearing before the board’s vote on boundary changes on May 24, 2017 at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center in Charlotte, NC. Davis, who is no longer on the CMS school board, was elected chairman of the State Board of Education on Sept. 6, 2018. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Despite a court ruling and more legislative intervention, the State Board of Education and State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson are continuing to fight over who is in charge of North Carolina’s public schools.

Johnson has begun exerting more authority, including reorganizing the state Department of Public Instruction, since a June decision by the N.C. Supreme Court upheld a 2016 state law transferring power from the state board to the superintendent.

Board members fought back at this week’s two-day meeting, publicly questioning decisions Johnson has made, such as using $6 million in state funding to purchase iPads for K-3 literacy teachers without notifying the board. The board also adopted new rules Thursday about their own authority and the superintendent’s authority. Johnson opposed them.

“We have a constitutional management oversight responsibility, and frankly it’s quite embarrassing when our constituents ask us about expenditures that we’re not aware of from the department that we oversee,” state board member Eric Davis said Wednesday of the iPad purchases.

Davis, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member, was unanimously elected chairman of the state board Thursday. Alan Duncan, a former Guilford County school board member, was unanimously elected vice chairman.

Johnson defended the iPad purchases, saying he had the authority to make them. He also repeatedly said that the board’s complaints were not good for the staff at DPI or for the state’s public schools.

“Let’s stop the back and forth at board meetings, please,” Johnson said Wednesday. “Let’s move on. The department has moved on. I’ve moved on.”

Mark Johnson, North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction comments on the annual release of the school performance grades during a press conference at the State Education Building on Wednesday, September 5, 2018 in Raleigh, N.C.

Tensions have been high since the Republican-led state legislature passed a law in December 2016 giving more power to Johnson, the first GOP state superintendent in 100 years. The state board challenged the lawsuit even though it also had a Republican majority.

The court ruling gave Johnson more day-to-day control over DPI, including hiring and firing of staff. Lawmakers responded to the court ruling by passing in June a new law repealing several state board policies.

But state board members have insisted that their constitutional mandate to oversee public schools gives them a role.

Amid the complaints from multiple board members this week, Johnson urged them to raise their concerns with him privately instead of publicly.

“We went through the lawsuit,” Johnson said. “It took a year-and-a-half and people are ready for us to show leadership and move on. People are ready for their leaders to work together.”

Board members said they needed to bring up their concerns publicly to ensure transparency. They also objected to Johnson blaming state board policies for helping to cause students to be overtested.

“When I pick up press releases that say ‘the state board has tied my hands,’ ‘the state board is the cause of this test,’ the state board on and on,” said state board member Tricia Willoughby. “You talk about collaboration, but you have to walk that walk.”

There potentially could be more conflict coming up as Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper will be able to exert more influence on who serves on the state board.

This week’s meeting was the final one for board members Greg Alcorn, Bill Cobey and Becky Taylor, who all resigned their seats early, which will allow Cooper to appoint people to finish their terms that run until March. If Cooper continues to have problems getting his appointees confirmed by the legislature, those people could stay on for a while.

Cooper gave his vision for public education at Thursday’s state board meeting. He also went on to praise the service of the three departing board members and to call for closer working ties with the remaining board members.

“This board has a real leadership role,” Cooper said. “Not only that, you have a constitutional duty to provide the best possible K-12 education for our kids. I want to partner with you. I want us to work together.”

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