NC superintendent: State board 'will not budge' over power struggle

Posted March 15

Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson and State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey

— As the State Board of Education and state superintendent continue to disagree over who should have more power over North Carolina's public school system, it's unclear whether they will be able to settle their differences outside of a courtroom.

In an interview Wednesday, Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson said the board is suing him and members of the General Assembly to block a law passed in December that transfers many of the board's powers to the superintendent.

Bob Orr, an attorney for the state board, said they are not suing the superintendent. They added his name to the lawsuit last week at his request so he could join as a party.

Johnson said he has "presented the idea of mediating this situation" with State Board Chairman Bill Cobey.

"But he has made it clear that the state board will not budge on them having the authority to appoint the top leadership at the department," Johnson said.

The new law, which has been temporarily blocked until a three-judge panel can make a final decision in June, would give Johnson more authority to hire and fire senior level employees and more flexibility in managing the state's education budget. Those powers have been under the State Board of Education's control.

"I am working with the state board as they go through and decide who they want to hire to fill key roles," Johnson said. "Unfortunately, things like a chief of staff, that role is still unfilled, and they have made it clear that they are not going to let me choose who my chief of staff will be. That will be a decision that they will make."

On Wednesday, Orr said he and Chairman Cobey are "happy to sit down and talk about" the lawsuit.

"It was my understanding that we were waiting for the superintendent to give (us) a time and date for everybody to sit down and talk," Orr said.

WRAL News has learned that a Republican lawmaker intervened behind the scenes, trying to negotiate a settlement between the two sides, but those attempts have stalled. In January, Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, exchanged several text messages with Johnson and offered to help settle the lawsuit.

"I spoke to (Senate President Pro Tem Phil) Berger & (House Speaker Tim) Moore. Do you have an appetite to settle (the lawsuit) without going to trial?" Horn wrote.

"I would definitely talk about it," Johnson responded. "At the end of the day, it all just comes down to making the changes we need."

"I believe that we can come to a mutually acceptable solution and avoid any further legal costs or other distractions," Horn wrote back.

The text messages, which WRAL News obtained through a public records request, show Horn worked on a proposal that he hoped would bring the two sides together.

"I will attempt some wording tonight and send on to you," Horn texted Johnson. "Once we have a proposal with which we are both comfortable and feel that Moore & Berger can support, I will take it to Bill Cobey. I spoke with him for quite some time on Friday and Saturday. Thanks for your patience with me."

"No rush. Just wanted you to know that I am here to work with you as you need," Johnson responded.

"Please let me know that you received my notes," Horn wrote. "If I am going down the wrong path, I want to switch gears before I waste your time further. Thanks."

Attempts to reach Horn for comment Wednesday were unsuccessful. In an interview in late January, he said he was hopeful the state board and superintendent could resolve their differences.

"In my view, I don’t think they’re as far apart as some people characterize them. Maybe I’m being naïve, quite possibly. But I’m an old sales guy. I negotiate settlements. That’s what I do," he said at the time.

With those negotiations now up in the air and court proceedings moving forward, Johnson said he plans to continue working with the state board, even though they disagree on who should be in charge.

"Chairman Cobey made it clear that the state board believes it is their right to be able to appoint the top leadership at the Department of Public Instruction," Johnson said. "I do not believe that is correct, and I do not believe that is what the constitution intends."


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