State News

Constitutional issues vital to dispute over education leaders' roles

Posted March 6, 2009 4:24 p.m. EST
Updated March 6, 2009 7:17 p.m. EST

— Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson says that a vital issue is at stake in her dispute with the newly appointed chief executive of public schools: Who does the state constitution say should be in charge of public education in North Carolina?

Atkinson smiled politely as Bill Harrison was sworn in Thursday as chief executive of the Department of Public Instruction. His position was created by Gov. Bev Perdue, who also appointed Harrison to the state Board of Education and asked the other members to elect him chairman, which they did.

Although she feels "awkward" and "disappointed" by the move, Atkinson said, its effect on schools and students is more important.

"I feel limited in thinking about the things that I really want to do to improve public education in the state," she said.

When she appointed Harrison in January, Perdue said that Atkinson would "continue to be the state’s education ambassador." Before the election, the elected superintendent's pay was set at $124,000 a year.

Perdue picked Harrison as the DPI's CEO to report directly to her, a position she created in January. He draws an annual salary of $265,000.

So who's in charge of state public education?

"I think the governor made that clear with me playing the role as state board member, playing the role of CEO," Harrison said.

Atkinson and her supporters, however, said that Harrison's newly created position is unconstitutional. On Thursday, she threatened to file a lawsuit asking courts to clarify the issue.

"What we've seen is a steady encroachment and erosion of the superintendent's authority and duties through either the executive or legislative branch" of government, said Bob Orr. The constitutional law expert and former State Supreme Court chief justice is advising Atkinson.

The Legislature and the State Board of Education have given power to and taken away power from the superintendent since the 1990s. The elected post currently has few duties. Atkinson was re-elected in November.

Orr said the impasse can be solved by either a judge's ruling or the General Assembly's signing off on a referendum to amend the constitution.

"It's much easier to bring a court action than it is to try and get a constitutional amendment passed," Orr said.

Senate President Pro Tempore Mark Basnight said that he supports Perdue's push to consolidate the educational leadership underneath the Governor's Office.

"I think the governor should have the ultimate authority over public education in North Carolina," Basnight said in a statement Friday. "For years, the leadership of our state's public schools has been blurry, and we passed legislation allowing the governor to make this change."

He indicated, however, that any legislation to change the balance of power – whether to confirm Atkinson's authority or abolish her position – would meet with stiff obstacles.

"Having a elected superintendent with little powers does not make sense, and I will support efforts to change it," Basnight said. "Making the position appointed or abolishing it will be difficult, though, because it will require a constitutional amendment, which will have to go before voters."