State News

Superintendent: 'Will of voters has been ignored'

Posted April 2, 2009 7:51 p.m. EDT
Updated April 3, 2009 4:52 p.m. EDT

— Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson sued the State Board of Education and Gov. Beverly Perdue on Friday, challenging the constitutionality of state government actions that she claims have taken away much of her power.

The suit, which she had hinted at for several weeks, is an attempt to regain Atkinson's authority as chief administrative officer of North Carolina's public schools.

"In good faith, 2.2 million North Carolinians cast their votes for me, believing that I should carry out my constitutional responsibility of being the administrative head of the public school system," said Atkinson, who was elected in November to her second four-year term as state superintendent. "Yet, recent actions by the State Board of Education and the governor have interfered with the execution of my defined constitutional duties."

Moving forward with the lawsuit was a difficult decision, she said, but she didn't want the dispute to fester and to distract officials from working to improve North Carolina's schools.

"It is time for the court system to settle this constitutional issue once and for all," she said. "It is not right that the will of the voters has been ignored, and it is not right that the constitution is being ignored."

The Board of Education and state lawmakers have been chipping away at the authority of the superintendent's position for years, and the last straw for Atkinson came in January, when Gov. Beverly Perdue said she wanted her choice for chairman of the board to become chief executive officer of the schools as well.

The state board elevated Bill Harrison, former superintendent of Cumberland County Schools, to both positions last month.

Perdue said she wanted to consolidate power so that she and her appointees would become ultimately responsible for the state's nearly 1.5 million-student system. She said Atkinson would remain an "ambassador" for the schools.

"Beginning in 1995 and continuing to the present, the state board has attempted to exercise constitutional powers reserved for the superintendent, including being the administrative head of the public school system and administering the Department of Public Instruction on a day-to-day basis," the suit charges.

Creating Harrison's post with its administrative duties violates several sections of the state constitution, according to the suit, as does having a salaried state worker also serving as chairman of the Board of Education.

The lawsuit seeks court orders invalidating Harrison's appointment, reaffirming Atkinson's role as the state's top school official and heading off any legislative action to curtail the authority of the elected superintendent.

Perdue spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson declined to comment on the suit, saying only that the governor remains focused on providing the public schools with the leadership needed to succeed.

"North Carolina’s children deserve nothing less than schools that work the right way to give them the education they need to succeed in a changing global workplace," Pearson said.

Harrison said his attorney has advised him not to comment on the lawsuit. Howard Lee, the former Board of Education chairman who now heads Perdue's education cabinet, also declined to comment.

Atkinson asked legislative leaders earlier this year to either work to pass a law to restore authority to her job, give the governor complete control over the DPI or let voters decide in a constitutional referendum.

Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight said last month that having an elected superintendent with little power doesn't make sense and that he would support efforts to change it.

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.

Legislation approved in 1995 gave the board flexibility to craft the superintendent's job. The power of the post has ebbed and flowed since then, depending on who was on the job. During Atkinson's first term, the board gave most of the day-to-day authority of the schools to a deputy superintendent.

Lawmakers have filed bills with statewide referenda to make the superintendent's post an appointed position or to abolish it.

Former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, who heads the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law, is representing Atkinson in the lawsuit.

Orr said last year during his unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination for governor that he believes the superintendent position should be appointed rather than elected. But he said Friday that the constitution currently calls for an elected superintendent and that Perdue and other have no right to bypass that.

"My sense is that the constitution has to be followed," he said. "(To determine) what is the best structure for the future, I think everybody who's concerned needs to sit down and figure out how do you get accountability (and) how do you get the most effective administration."

Atkinson said she recognizes that the lawsuit makes her working relationship with Harrison and the DPI awkward, but she said she intends to keep working to move schools forward.

"Dr. Harrison and I are feeling our way," she said. "He and I meet on a weekly basis."