In new court filings, NC superintendent says state board has 'severely limited' his authority

Posted April 13

North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson

— In court documents filed this week, North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson says the State Board of Education has "severely limited" his authority and has either ignored or denied his requests to make staffing changes at the state education department.

The superintendent and state board are involved in an ongoing legal battle over which one has constitutional authority to supervise the state's public school system. The new court filings shed light on the internal power struggle since Johnson began serving as superintendent in January.

Among his list of complaints, Johnson said the state board routinely appoints committees to vet potential hires for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction instead of voting on his recommendations for the positions.

Johnson cited one instance in January when he asked the chairman of the state board "to hire a certain candidate who shares my vision" and would be "a positive change agent for DPI" for the chief financial officer position.

Instead of voting to approve or disapprove 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 Adam 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 for comment Thursday, Levinson said he didn't think it was appropriate to comment on the superintendent's affidavit.

According to court records, Johnson said he also suggested a candidate to serve as deputy state superintendent, but the board decided to create another committee to oversee the selection process.

"While I am attempting to work with the state board to fill this vacancy, it has taken months to agree on a job description, advertise, coordinate schedules and interview candidates," Johnson wrote.

The full board typically meets in Raleigh one and a half days each month, which slows the decision-making process, according to Johnson.

"Having both the state board and the state superintendent of public instruction – up to 14 individuals – involved in the day-to-day management of DPI slows decision making to a crawl and makes it difficult to implement any changes or be responsive to the needs of the education community," Johnson wrote. "I'm at DPI every week, but the staff and the agency must wait for the state board to finalize what are frequently time-sensitive decisions."

Another concern, Johnson said, is that 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.

"Presumably, this provides the state board with the opportunity to comment on or influence contracts before they are signed," Johnson wrote.

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, 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.

A spokesman for Johnson did not comment on the bill. Instead, he said the superintendent's recent court filing "speaks for itself and makes clear that Superintendent Johnson firmly believes the N.C. Constitution supports our position regarding the wasteful lawsuit brought by Chairman Bill Cobey and his colleagues on the unelected state board of education."

Cobey did not comment on the new court filings Thursday but has said in the past that the law threatens the working relationship between the board and Johnson.

When asked for comment on the lawsuit, a spokeswoman for DPI sent a copy of the state board's recent court filings. A spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Justice, which is representing the state in the lawsuit, said the office "has made a number of filings in this case and will continue preparation for hearing before the three-judge panel."


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  • Kevin Weidner Apr 15, 2017
    user avatar

    I stand corrected Tom Harris.

    After reading Mr. Colby's comments it certainly sounds as if the new superintendent might not be familiar with the boards overall authority.

  • Tom Harris Apr 14, 2017
    user avatar

    For the record, the State Board of Education is majority Republican. And for the record, Johnson has at least as much power as his predecessor and is trying to grasp much more. Not surprisingly, he supports Betsy DeVos on the grounds that it is good to have someone with little or no experience (like him) to take a fresh look at the nation's approach to education. That's kind of like asking a Chiropractor to remove your brain tumor.

  • Kevin Weidner Apr 14, 2017
    user avatar

    So, the majority democratic board is placing politics ahead of the states kids. When asked for comments, they submit court filings that are publuc record or say it's inapropriate to comment on a filed affidavit. We realize you're upset that June is gone and a young republican was elected as state superintendent, but just remember that you reap what you sow. Your first and foremist responsibulity should be the providing the children of this state the best possible educations as possible - not party loyalty. The obstructionist tactics need to stop regardless of your political affiliation.