Raleigh, N.C. — Bill Cobey doesn't understand what went wrong. As chairman of the State Board of Education, he thought the board was doing "a great job" overseeing the state's public schools.
Then, last month, lawmakers passed a bill taking away power from the state board and giving it to newly elected Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson.
That meant Johnson would have more say over the state's education budget, more authority to dismiss senior level employees and more control over the state's charter schools. Those powers had been under the board's control.
Cobey was stunned.
"It would have been helpful if we had been involved, but nobody contacted us. We were as surprised as anybody when the legislation came forward," he said during Saturday's episode of Education Matters, a show broadcast on WRAL-TV.
The state board quickly filed suit, claiming the new law diminishes the board's constitutional authority and "raises significant legal concerns." A judge granted a temporary restraining order, preventing the new superintendent from taking the board's power.
But Cobey still wonders why the law was needed in the first place.
"I understand the General Assembly wanting to be supportive of a new superintendent, but this goes way beyond that," he said. "I haven't figured out what the General Assembly thinks we've done wrong, because we have implemented their laws with great fidelity."
Some lawmakers have criticized the board, Cobey admits, "because they think that we ought to be approving a lot more charter schools."
"But we believe we have to approve quality charter schools," he said. "I don't think anybody really should have a beef with us because, once the charter cap was lifted, we've gone from 100 to 167 charter schools, and also the number of charter school students has doubled under our watch."
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement last month that the law simply restores powers to the superintendent that Democratic lawmakers moved to the education board in 1994.
He said it is "incredibly disappointing" that the board is diverting "tax dollars meant for our students and teachers into a lawsuit that re-litigates a court case they’ve already lost once before." He was citing a 2009 lawsuit by former state Superintendent June Atkinson to confirm her role in charge of the state Department of Public Instruction.
"The board should immediately drop this lawsuit, stop fighting to maintain a course that has been rejected by North Carolina voters and instead start working with the elected superintendent to improve our public schools," Berger added.
Johnson, who is still in his first month on the job as superintendent, supports the new law. In a statement, he said the changes "will help usher in an era of greater transparency" and create a system of state oversight of public schools "similar to how local superintendents and their respective boards of education work together across North Carolina."
While Cobey disagrees with the new superintendent, he said he won't let the power struggle get in the way of their work.
"This is not about Mark Johnson. We intend to have a good relationship with the new superintendent," he said.