A state superintendent who wants to be a czar

Mark Johnson has had a lot of disturbing moments in his short but turbulent tenure as state superintendent, but if ever there were a moment that put a frame around his peculiar blend of bumbling self-assuredness, it came Wednesday at a meeting with the State Board of Education.

The board, at that moment, was completing a discussion about a contract to distribute thousands of iPads to N.C. elementary school classrooms. Board chair Eric Davis, a former member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, had a question about some additional devices. Two days before, with cameras clicking, Johnson had given 100 iPads from his office’s stash of devices to a math teacher at Junius H. Rose High School in Pitt County. Davis was curious about how that high school was selected — and how other schools might raise their hands for a similar windfall.

“How do we respond when the question is, ‘Well, what criteria is used to make these awards and how does my school get into the queue to be considered for these awards?’” Davis asked.

“They can email me,” Johnson said.

“That’s the criteria?” Davis said.

Apparently, yes. Educators across the state winced at the exchange, while Johnson wondered why he couldn’t just do what wanted. It’s an ongoing pattern with a state superintendent who too often operates without regard to process or protocol — or even the reasons there are processes and protocols. In this case of the extra iPads, such reasons are elementary: Resources are scarce in N.C. schools. Educators should have an equal opportunity to make a case for them, and they shouldn’t be used as props for superintendent photo-ops. At the least, the distribution of resources should be part of larger plans and policies developed together by the state superintendent and state school board.

Johnson believes otherwise — at least about the working together part. Since winning office in 2016, he has operated with an unprecedented autonomy, as if he were the boss of a small business and not the leader of the state’s massive schools apparatus. That’s resulted in unnecessary stumbles and outright scandals, such as when Johnson ignored his own expert evaluation committee and awarded a multi-million dollar reading diagnostics contract to a company he preferred. That contract was put on hold by another North Carolina agency, which held hearings about the mess last week.

All of which could have been avoided had N.C. Republicans not engaged in some cynical lawmaking three years ago. In the weeks following Johnson’s 2016 victory over incumbent state superintendent June Atkinson, Republicans passed House Bill 17, which stripped power from the State Board of Education and provided more authority to Johnson, a Republican. HB 17 gave Johnson control over state education funds, and it removed statutory language stating that the Superintendent’s administration of the public school system is “subject to the direction, control, and approval of the State Board of Education.”

That left our state’s schools under the unchecked control of an inexperienced schools chief, not a state school board that brings a thoughtful approach and decades of education experience to the challenges our public schools face. A parade of embarrassments have followed, as well as some notable setbacks in programs like the Innovative School District.

Republicans can and should repair the damage they’ve done. They should restore the checks and balances HB 17 removed from public school system leadership, and they should signal to Johnson that his combative, go-it-alone style doesn’t serve North Carolina’s children. Our schools need a leader, not a czar.