Raleigh, N.C. — A Superior Court judge ruled Friday that Gov. Beverly Perdue cannot appoint a separate CEO for the public schools aside from the elected state superintendent of education.
Judge Robert Hobgood ruled that the General Assembly and the State Board of Education cannot deprive Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson of the power to oversee public education in North Carolina without a constitutional amendment.
"The judge's ruling says that the votes of our people count and that our constitution matters," Atkinson said after the court hearing.
Perdue said in a statement that she was reviewing Hobgood's decision and planned to continue working with both Atkinson and Bill Harrison, the former Cumberland County Schools chief who she appointed in January to the dual roles of chairman of the education board and CEO of the public school system.
Harrison said in a statement that he would "continue my close working relationship with the superintendent and the governor to increase accountability and ensure North Carolina's public schools are globally competitive."
Former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, whose N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law represented Atkinson in the lawsuit, argued in court Wednesday that Perdue violated the state constitution by creating the position of an overarching public education executive and giving him day-to-day administrative powers.
Since then, Atkinson said, her role has been diminished to that of an ambassador for public education, which isn't what voters elected her to do.
Attorneys for the state maintained that a 1995 state law allowed the education board to craft the duties of the superintendent's position, but Hobgood said the superintendent's constitutional powers trump any such law.
"The General Assembly and the State Board of Education do not have the power, without a constitutional amendment, to confer on the chief executive officer of the State Board of Education the inherent powers of the duly elected superintendent of public instruction as the chief administrative officer of the State Board of Education," Hobgood said in reading his ruling.
North Carolina is one of 13 states that elect their chief school administrators.
It was unclear Friday what would happen to Harrison's post.
"Dr. Harrison and I have been friends for a long time. I know he and I will need to have a conversation about his role," Atkinson said, adding that there's no need for two people in charge. "He still remains the state board chair, (and) I believe both of us really do put the welfare of our children first."
Hobgood said in his ruling that the General Assembly could approve of a separate position to oversee the daily operations of the state Department of Public Instruction as long as it operates under the superintendent's direction.
"The wisdom of having a chief executive officer appointed by the State Board of Education at a salary of $265,000 per year is not for this court to decide," the judge said. "The job of administering a statewide public school system is difficult and complex."
A constitutional amendment to eliminate the elected superintendent's position and put a gubernatorial appointee in charge of North Carolina's schools would require a statewide vote and approval by three-fifths of the lawmakers in both the House and Senate.
Special Deputy Attorney General Mark Davis asked Hobgood to delay implementing his ruling pending an appeal. DPI is trying to deal with state budget cuts and is in the process of assuming control of the Halifax County school district because of continued poor student performance, he said, so Harrison should remain in charge to ensure consistency.
"This is going to be a major disruption for DPI," Davis said. "The system is not broken. It is functioning properly, and there is no reason not to stay this ruling."
Orr said Atkinson is "fully capable" of carrying out all DPI programs, and Hobgood agreed that the superintendent should immediately regain her power to lead the department.
Atkinson said she was ready to again take charge of DPI and move the state's schools forward.
"I will carry out the policies of the State Board of Education, and I will lead the Department of Public Instruction to make education better in North Carolina," she said. "We've got work to do in Halifax County. We've got work to do in the budget. We've got work to do in helping educators transform schools. I think there may be some awkward moments, but then after those moments, I think we can move forward."