State News

N.C. education head fights idea of separate schools CEO

Posted July 15, 2009 4:01 a.m. EDT
Updated July 15, 2009 7:08 p.m. EDT

— A judge said he would rule Friday on whether the state's elected schools superintendent should regain powers lost when Gov. Beverly Perdue named a separate chief executive to oversee North Carolina's public schools.

Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson sued Perdue and the State Board of Education in April, contending that North Carolina voters elected her to the superintendent's post and Perdue's decision to name a CEO for the schools was illegal. She asked the courts to determine the scope of the superintendent's constitutional powers.

"The state board, no matter how well-intentioned they may have been, cannot reduce or eliminate or transfer those powers," Bob Orr, a former state Supreme Court justice who is representing Atkinson, told Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood on Wednesday.

A 1995 law gave the education board flexibility to shape the superintendent's job, and the power of the post since then has depended on who held the job.

In January, Perdue named former Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Bill Harrison to the dual role of chairman of the board and the new position of CEO of the state's schools. She said the move would improve accountability and more clearly define leadership in the state Department of Public Instruction.

With Harrison overseeing daily operations, Atkinson has been relegated to serving as the state's education ambassador.

Orr compared the move to relegating Attorney General Roy Cooper to the job of crime liaison or ambassador.

"The concept of being chief administrative officer means as little or as great as the board chooses," he said. "If they can do this to (Atkinson), they can do it to other Council of State members."

Special Deputy Attorney General Mark Davis argued that the 1995 state law allows the General Assembly to adjust the powers of elected officials. He said that Atkinson should push for a constitutional amendment if she doesn't like the law.

"Her argument is ultimately not what the constitution says, but what she thinks it should be," Davis said.

Atkinson, who oversees four employees compared with the nearly 800 Harrison oversees, said after the court hearing that the voters elected her to do a job, and she intends to carry it out.

"I believe that I need to be integral to the decision-making process to carry out the state board policy," she said. "As it exists today, that is not clear, and that brings me heartburn."