State News

Constitutional issues vital to dispute over education leaders' roles

Posted March 6, 2009

— Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson says that a vital issue is at stake in her dispute with the newly appointed chief executive of public schools: Who does the state constitution say should be in charge of public education in North Carolina?

Dr. June Atkinson Who rules the schools?

Atkinson smiled politely as Bill Harrison was sworn in Thursday as chief executive of the Department of Public Instruction. His position was created by Gov. Bev Perdue, who also appointed Harrison to the state Board of Education and asked the other members to elect him chairman, which they did.

Although she feels "awkward" and "disappointed" by the move, Atkinson said, its effect on schools and students is more important.

"I feel limited in thinking about the things that I really want to do to improve public education in the state," she said.

When she appointed Harrison in January, Perdue said that Atkinson would "continue to be the state’s education ambassador." Before the election, the elected superintendent's pay was set at $124,000 a year.

Perdue picked Harrison as the DPI's CEO to report directly to her, a position she created in January. He draws an annual salary of $265,000.

So who's in charge of state public education?

"I think the governor made that clear with me playing the role as state board member, playing the role of CEO," Harrison said.

Atkinson and her supporters, however, said that Harrison's newly created position is unconstitutional. On Thursday, she threatened to file a lawsuit asking courts to clarify the issue.

"What we've seen is a steady encroachment and erosion of the superintendent's authority and duties through either the executive or legislative branch" of government, said Bob Orr. The constitutional law expert and former State Supreme Court chief justice is advising Atkinson.

The Legislature and the State Board of Education have given power to and taken away power from the superintendent since the 1990s. The elected post currently has few duties. Atkinson was re-elected in November.

Orr said the impasse can be solved by either a judge's ruling or the General Assembly's signing off on a referendum to amend the constitution.

"It's much easier to bring a court action than it is to try and get a constitutional amendment passed," Orr said.

Senate President Pro Tempore Mark Basnight said that he supports Perdue's push to consolidate the educational leadership underneath the Governor's Office.

"I think the governor should have the ultimate authority over public education in North Carolina," Basnight said in a statement Friday. "For years, the leadership of our state's public schools has been blurry, and we passed legislation allowing the governor to make this change."

He indicated, however, that any legislation to change the balance of power – whether to confirm Atkinson's authority or abolish her position – would meet with stiff obstacles.

"Having a elected superintendent with little powers does not make sense, and I will support efforts to change it," Basnight said. "Making the position appointed or abolishing it will be difficult, though, because it will require a constitutional amendment, which will have to go before voters."


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  • JennyT Mar 10, 2009

    We're going to have to cut student funding or increase class sizes, but we created another bureaucratic position to do nothing but take money away from the children! Great job Wake County! At our school, teachers are losing jobs, but let's pay this guy an exorbitant amount of money to do nothing. So frustrating!


  • dissatisifiedwitheverything Mar 9, 2009

    Why is so much money being spent on this guy when the economy is as bad as it is? Is Perdue his "sugar mama"?
    Come on Bev, the budget needs balancing and this is not a way to start!!!

  • methinkthis Mar 6, 2009

    Slap Perdue in the face for this act of usurping the will of the people who elected the Superintendent of Education. Lets get the suit in process and get this resolved for the sake of education in this state. The Governor's arrogance needs to be stopped.

  • Tax Man Mar 6, 2009

    Hope Justice Orr brings this lawsuit quickly - there is no way we should pay this guy over $200k a year for a $35,000 job! He is just a political bloke set up to help people who helped get Perdue elected. File the lawsuit - boot the joker out and give the elected official the job but not the ridiculous pay. The education system should pay teachers in the classrooms bonuses for their success and the top heavy administration should be paid no more than $40K per year and only for those jobs are are absolutely necessary. That guys salary would put nearly 8 teachers in the classroom! Get rid of him (and the Gov while you are at it).

  • nccruiter Mar 6, 2009

    Let's see Rand is from Fayetteville new CEO is from Fayetteville hmmmmmm

  • nccruiter Mar 6, 2009

    HEY!!!! Let's vote for some more Dems!!!!! Yea!!

  • time4real Mar 6, 2009

    June, July or August, you have done a, as wral would say, "pore" job of your job, so you are being relieved of command. Go on vacation and stay gone. We're moving on and if Billy Bob doesn't do something to improve this system of failing education he'll be joining you!!!

  • UNCfuturealumi Mar 6, 2009

    June you may as well sign on out. you have been, well i just better not say it, but you know very well this is Bev placing her people in office with a big payday to help them all in retirement. I say let begin to look for another new governor and get her on out of office and four years cannot come quick enough. BYE

  • terrie Mar 6, 2009

    It is so bizarre that the governor has hired the former superindent of Cumberland County Schools, one of the worst systems in the state. Why pay someone twice what the Atkinson gets when she is more qualified and willing to do the job. Please don't blame Obama for Bev. She may be a woman but she is a product of the North Carolina good ole boy system.

  • retired and luv it Mar 6, 2009

    Considering Atkinson has been in charge for a while now and the obvious state of our public schools, let s try this new scenario but for heaven s sake send Atkinson home without her helping of our tax dollars.