Local Politics

Atkinson: Room for only one education chief

Posted July 20, 2009 4:56 p.m. EDT
Updated July 20, 2009 7:06 p.m. EDT

— Backed by a state judge's ruling, Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said Monday that she plans to solidify her control of North Carolina's public school system.

"I believe there's room for one person at the top of the organization," Atkinson told WRAL News by phone from Colorado, where she's attending the Council of Chief State School Officers annual meeting.

Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood said Friday that Atkinson is the person at the top of North Carolina's schools because the state constitution assigns that duty to the elected superintendent.

Gov. Beverly Perdue in January named former Cumberland County Schools chief Bill Harrison to the dual roles of chairman of the State Board of Education and chief executive of the public school system. The latter position didn't exist before Harrison's appointment, but Perdue said it was needed to improve accountability and establish a clear line of command in the state Department of Public Instruction.

Atkinson, whose role was diminished after Harrison's appointment to that of an ambassador for public education, sued the state, saying Perdue's move wrongly stripped her of her authority.

Lawyers for the state haven't decided whether to appeal the ruling, but Harrison said Monday that pursuing the case would only distract from the task of improving student performance.

Although he and Atkinson haven't spoken since Friday's ruling, he said he plans to continue working with her to lead DPI, noting that there's plenty of work for two people.

"We've worked well together the past 4½ months, and I think we'll work together for the next number of years," he said.

Harrison retains his position as chairman of the education board and said he reports to Perdue. Atkinson insisted that he would report to her in the future because there's no longer a need for a school CEO.

"His role has to be clarified should he continue as an employee of the Department of Public Instruction," she said.

His salary also might need to be adjusted, she said. Harrison makes $265,000 a year, which is more than double the Atkinson's $123,198 annual salary.

Atkinson and Harrison said they plan to sit down together Thursday to discuss various issues, and they acknowledged that they expect plenty of awkward moments as they try to redefine their roles following Hobgood's ruling.

"I think we're both adults and we're both focused on the work that needs to be done, and that's what's important," Harrison said.