Local Politics

Harrison retires as state schools CEO

Posted July 22, 2009 3:09 p.m. EDT
Updated July 22, 2009 11:16 p.m. EDT

— Six months after Gov. Beverly Perdue plucked Bill Harrison from Cumberland County Schools to serve as chief executive of North Carolina's public education system, Harrison stepped down abruptly Wednesday, citing the ongoing dispute with the state's elected education superintendent.

"I have spent a great deal of time during the last two days responding to a legal dispute regarding my position as CEO," Harrison wrote in a memo to Department of Public Instruction staff. "Quite frankly, I’ve wasted too many hours on this case – hours I would rather use working with you and education leaders across the state to accomplish the one thing Gov. Perdue asked of me six months ago: reforming our public education system to best serve our children."

A Superior Court judge last Friday ruled that, without a constitutional amendment, Perdue couldn't undermine the authority of Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson by assigning oversight of the state's schools to Harrison.

Atkinson sued the state in April, saying voters elected her to run North Carolina's public schools and Harrison's appointment took that responsibility away from her, relegating her to the role of an education ambassador.

Perdue maintained that installing Harrison as schools CEO and as chairman of the State Board of Education would improve accountability and establish a clear line of command within DPI.

After her courtroom victory, Atkinson told WRAL News that "there's room for one person at the top of the organization." She said she planned to meet with Harrison Thursday to discuss his future role.

On her way back from an education conference in Colorado Wednesday evening, Atkinson told WRAL News that she had a friendly phone conversation with Harrison earlier in the day, and that they agreed the fight over the top job at DPI has been a distraction.

"I think his retiring is characteristic of how Dr. Harrison puts public education and our children first," she said. "He and I will put what has happened in the past, and we will move forward for public education and our children."

Harrison's retirement takes effect Aug. 31. He said in a statement that he would continue as chairman of the education board.

"As chairman of the State Board of Education, I want my focus to be on the 1.4 million students in this state, not on a court case. Six months ago, Gov. Perdue asked me to help her transform North Carolina’s public school system, and I will continue to work with her and Superintendent Atkinson to do so," he said.

Harrison was paid $265,000 for his two positions, but officials said he won't collect any salary as education board chairman.

"Dr. Harrison’s decision today to devote his time to leading the State Board of Education exemplifies what I’ve known all along – that his real commitment is not to a title or to a paycheck, but to securing a world class education system for our children," Perdue said in a statement. "During this legal dispute, the focus on our kids has been lost in the courtroom. Dr. Harrison’s move today puts the focus back where it belongs – on the classroom."