Local News

Superintendent loses power, works with those she's suing

Posted April 10, 2009 12:45 p.m. EDT
Updated April 10, 2009 7:15 p.m. EDT

— Before suing Gov. Beverly Perdue and the state Board of Education, Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said she called those named in the to let them know it was coming.

As WRAL saw Tuesday while shadowing Atkinson, she continues to work alongside many of the people she is suing.

“I felt it was very important to provide them the professional courtesy and personal courtesy of letting them know what my plans were,” she said.

Now in her diminished role as an elected, but largely powerless leader of the state school system, Atkinson reports to work each day and discusses important education topics with some of the people she is suing – including the school system’s new CEO, Bill Harrison.

Dressed in Carolina blue, she began her day at the office at 7:10 a.m. and met briefly with her senior policy adviser about a presentation she planned to give. Then she was off to a meeting with Harrison and associate superintendents.

“How are you this morning, Bill?” she asked.

Atkinson claims that Harrison’s newly-created position is unconstitutional and usurps hers. However, she was polite as they discussed their protest of the Senate’s proposed budget, which includes deep cuts to education.

“One of the reasons I went forth with the lawsuit was to have some clarity, and I think that is important when it comes to the taxpayers’ dollars,” she said.

When asked who communicates with legislators, her or Harrison, Atkinson said they each speak on behalf of their respective positions.

“Bill will certainly speak for the department as chairman of the state board, and I can speak as state superintendent,” she said.

Next, Atkinson was off to a Council of State meeting where she received a friendly greeting from Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, another person named in her lawsuit. After the brief meeting, she had time for a chat with Attorney General Roy Cooper who will represent the state in her lawsuit.

If she wins the lawsuit, Atkinson said her goal is “to be able to work on a day-to-day basis in a management and leadership role.” Whatever the outcome, she said she will live with the court’s decision, which she hopes leaves her, and her alone, in charge of education in North Carolina.

Atkinson said she asked Cooper to expedite the case. Her attorney thinks the courts could take it up in nine months, she said.

A 1995 law gave the state school board flexibility to shape the superintendent's job, and the power of the post has ebbed and flowed since then depending on who held the job. In Atkinson's first term, the board gave most of the day-to-day authority of the schools to a deputy superintendent.

Atkinson was elected to a second term as superintendent in November. In January, Perdue said she wanted her choice for chairman of the board of education also to take the new title of schools chief executive officer, clearly making Perdue responsible for how the public schools educate about 1.5 million students.

Harrison, the former Cumberland County schools superintendent, took both posts last month. Atkinson said her role has been constricted to being "an ambassador for public education."