State News

Atkinson threatens suit as state's new education leader takes charge

Posted March 5, 2009 9:37 a.m. EST

— 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 Thursday.

He replaces former school board chairman Howard Lee, who stepped down from the board Thursday. Lee will serve as executive director of Gov. Bev Perdue's education cabinet.

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, a position Perdue created to consolidate authority and accountability for public schools in North Carolina.

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.

Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said Thursday she won't fight Harrison's appointment but is willing to take legal action to resolve her role after Perdue's push to consolidate power among public education leaders.

Atkinson called it "charade" that voters believe that they are electing the person who will run the education department.

"I believe the appointment of a chief executive I believe this action violates the constitution of North Carolina and usurps the will of the voters who granted me the privilege to serve as state superintendent of public instruction," Atkinson said in a statement. "I do not believe that the governance issue will be resolved until it is challenged in the judicial system or the constitution is changed. I will not abdicate my constitutional and statutory responsibilities. I remain committed to the 2.2 million voters who elected me and to the children and educators in this state.”

Atkinson said she hopes the legislature would allow voters to amend the constitution to clarify or eliminate her job.

Bob Orr, a former justice of the North Carolina State Supreme Court, said he