State News

Atkinson: Courts or voters should decide education leaders' roles

Posted March 5, 2009 9:37 a.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:13 p.m. EDT

— On the same day that the governor's designated chief of schools was sworn in for that job and took over as State Board of Education chair, Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson raised the prospect of a legal case to resolve constitutional issues about who is in charge of what.

Gov. Bev Perdue has pushed to consolidate power over and accountability for public education, which a consultant had said was diffuse.

Thursday, former Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Bill Harrison was appointed as the new chairman of the State Board of Education and sworn in as the state school system's new chief executive, a position Perdue created.

Harrison is the first person to serve as both State Board of Education chairman and as chief executive of the state Department of Public Instruction.

Atkinson, who is elected to her post, congratulated Harrison, whom she called her "friend and professional colleague," on his appointment, but said her role must be clarified.

"I believe the appointment of a chief executive officer of Public Instruction is not in accordance with the state constitution," Atkinson said. "I would like the General Assembly to put forth some sort of constitutional referendum, or I may need to go through the judicial system."

Atkinson said she has written to the General Assembly leadership, asking them to either allow voters to amend the constitution to clarify or eliminate her job.

"I just think it's a charade" that voters believe that the person they elect to run the Department of Public Instruction is actually given that responsibility, Atkinson said.

Harrison replaced board chairman Howard Lee, who stepped down from the board Thursday. Lee will serve as executive director of Perdue's education cabinet.

An outside consultant criticized North Carolina's school system in a January report, saying the lack of clear-cut leadership thwarted efforts to improve education.

Bob Orr, a former justice on the State Supreme Court, said he is working with Atkinson. Three main issues are in contention, he said:

  • the scope that the state constitution grants to the superintendent of public instruction;
  • the authority and scope of the newly created CEO position and its relation to the superintendent;
  • and a constitutional provision regarding a person holding two appointed positions.

The state constitution calls the superintendent the chief administrative officer of the board, whose voting members largely are appointed by the governor and are directed to supervise and administer the public schools. But legislation approved in 1995 gave the board flexibility to craft the superintendent's job.

A month ago, Perdue said that Atkinson would continue to serve as an "ambassador" for the public schools. Some lawmakers, such as Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, and education advocates have recommended the state superintendent become an appointed position or be abolished.

Thursday, the Governor's Office indicated that the dispute might go in the direction of the General Assembly.

"If the General Assembly wants to take up the issue of the role of the state superintendent of public schools, they are welcome to do so," said Chrissy Pearson, a spokeswoman for Perdue.