Board chair 'baffled,' 'shocked' by NC superintendent's actions in ongoing legal battle
Posted April 14
Raleigh, N.C. — State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey said he is "baffled" and "shocked" by some of the things Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson has done in their ongoing power struggle over the state's public school system.
Cobey kept his comments to a minimum in an interview Friday but said he wanted to respond to some of the accusations Johnson made in an affidavit filed in court this week. The superintendent and state board are involved in an ongoing legal battle over who has constitutional authority to supervise the state's public school system.
In his affidavit, Johnson said the state board has "severely limited" his authority and has ignored or denied his requests to make staffing changes at the state Department of Public Instruction.
Cobey took exception to several of Johnson's comments, especially the superintendent's criticism of the board's choice of Adam Levinson as DPI's new chief financial officer.
According to court documents, Johnson said he asked the state board "to hire a certain candidate who shares my vision" and would be "a positive change agent for DPI" for the CFO position. Instead of voting on his candidate, Johnson said, the board posted an ad for the job and had a committee review the applicants. The committee then made its own recommendation to the state board, which the board supported.
On March 2, the board voted to hire Levinson, who previously served as chief of staff for former Superintendent June Atkinson, who lost to Johnson in November's election. In his affidavit, Johnson accused the board of promoting "more of the same" and failing to hire "a positive change agent" as CFO.
When reached by email, Levinson said he didn't think it was appropriate to comment on the matter. But Cobey defended him Friday, saying Levinson was "by far the most qualified person that we could put in that position" and "comprehensively knows the department."
The process of choosing a CFO and other top level positions is one "we’ve adhered to ever since I’ve been chairman," Cobey said. If Johnson brings forward a candidate the board thinks is a good fit for the position, "we'll give it a nod," Cobey added, but "we don't vote on personnel matters in closed session."
The chairman said he was surprised Johnson filed an affidavit and "was shocked at the level of detail that he got into."
"I’m not going to get into that level of detail," Cobey added.
"State Board members often only work 1.5 days a month, some members even miss those meetings, so it's not surprising they would be shocked at the level of detail it takes to manage DPI and effect positive change for public education in NC," said Jonathan Felts, a spokesman for Johnson.
Johnson's affidavit and the other court filings made this week have shed light on the internal power struggle the board and superintendent have been having since January, when Johnson started the job.
In court documents, Johnson said some of the board's recent policy changes show they "intend to exert even greater oversight over the day-to-day management of DPI," including their desire for more oversight of financial contracts. The board voted in December to have more oversight of contracts.
"That had nothing to do with him," Cobey said. "That was pre his superintendency and was not in anticipation of his superintendency."
At the heart of the legal battle between Johnson and the state board is a law passed in December that would transfer many of the board's powers to Johnson. The board quickly filed suit against the state, claiming the law diminishes the board's constitutional authority and "raises significant legal concerns."
A judge granted a temporary restraining order, preventing Johnson from taking the board's power. A three-judge panel is expected to hear the case on June 29.
Meanwhile, lawmakers have been working to help Johnson get more control over DPI. This week, four Republican House members filed a measure to give Johnson more than $700,000 to hire staff for his office. His hires would not be subject to the state board's approval.
The bill would allow Johnson "to double the size of his personal staff," Cobey said. "I know he requested it, and I’m baffled as to why he needs more personal staff. I really have no idea what they would do, and so, I certainly oppose it."
In response, Felts said the superintendent is "more baffled that unelected Chairman Cobey thinks it was the intent of NC voters to keep status quo at DPI and promote former Superintendent June Atkinson’s top deputy."
"We are baffled that unelected Chairman Cobey thinks the Superintendent should be forced to run one of the most important departments in the state without a CoS [chief of staff] or a deputy superintendent," Felts said. "Those slots have been vacant for a while now because, even though the superintendent submitted very qualified candidates to the board, the board refused to do their job and vote up or down on the candidates. The unelected Board decided instead to pursue a slow, bureaucratic process that hurts NC public schools."
Sometimes, a slower process is necessary, according to Cobey.
"When you’re hiring top level people, it’s much more important to get the right person than to do it in a hurry," he said.
For now, the board chair and superintendent continue to wait for the court to hear their case, a case that is "wasteful," according to the superintendent.
"Well, it’s certainly not wasteful," Cobey said. "When the constitution is under attack, the constitution of North Carolina that we’re sworn to uphold, it’s not wasteful to challenge it. This is important litigation, very important litigation."
Johnson's spokesman begged to differ.
"If Chairman Cobey doesn’t understand how wasteful it is to force everyone to spend taxpayer dollars on lawyers in courtrooms rather than teachers in classrooms, then I’m afraid he’s lost his way on what’s best for public education in NC," Felts said.
Cobey has said he worries the law passed in December will strain the board's relationship with the new superintendent. On Friday, the strain was evident. When asked how the relationship with the superintendent is going, Cobey offered this:
"I’d rather not comment on that," he said. "We’re doing what we are called to do as a board, and we have a great board to work with. I continue to hope that things go well as we progress to the future."