State board member asks NC superintendent to address 'the elephant in the room'

Posted October 6, 2017 12:21 a.m. EDT
Updated October 6, 2017 1:02 a.m. EDT

North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson

— State Superintendent Mark Johnson smiled Thursday as he showed a picture of himself sitting on an old North Carolina school bus.

"For some reason, they let me get behind the driver wheel. Luckily, the bus was not turned on," he joked.

For Johnson, it was a lighthearted moment at the end of his monthly superintendent's report to the State Board of Education – a way to showcase the state's 100th anniversary of school buses and other good news happening in North Carolina's public schools.

But after 11 minutes of good news stories from the superintendent, state board member Greg Alcorn wanted more.

"I appreciate the good news, but the elephant in the room is the budget cuts," Alcorn said.

"I’d like to request, Superintendent Johnson, that if possible next month you put a couple things on your presentation that will help us with our clarity and consistency of message," Alcorn said. "One is the budget cuts and how we’re handling that from your perspective, being able to hear as much as we can on that."

Alcorn explained that the board also wanted to hear the superintendent's thoughts on principal pay and how state lawmakers are handling that topic.

"You’re the face and the voice for the state ... and I would encourage you to take this precious time to be able to support those two things so I can be in unison with you," Alcorn added. "Please help us with that."

Johnson listened quietly, then pulled his microphone in close.

"Yeah. Thank you for that feedback. I’m sure you’ll make the same request of Chairman Cobey for his (monthly) report," Johnson said, and pushed the microphone away, ending the conversation.

That exchange at Thursday's State Board of Education meeting showcased some of the ongoing tension between the board and superintendent, who have been embroiled in a lawsuit over control of the state's public school system.

Since becoming superintendent in January, Johnson has remained quiet at times about major issues facing the state Department of Public Instruction. He often prefers to work behind the scenes, speaking with lawmakers privately rather than sharing his thoughts on policy in public settings. 

In a statement to WRAL News on Thursday, Johnson defended his decision to highlight good news each month instead of talking about principal pay, budget cuts or other topics board members may want to hear him discuss.

"At the start of my term, I decided to use the Superintendent’s Report as a chance to highlight the best in public education from around the state," Johnson said in an emailed statement. "While my reports may not grab headlines, month after month I champion the great things going on in our schools."

Johnson did not respond to a question about whether he plans to talk about topics like budget cuts and principal pay more publicly in the future. 

In a brief interview after Thursday's board meeting, Alcorn said he decided to ask Johnson to speak out because he believes the superintendent's voice is important, especially on critical topics lawmakers are considering. "All of us need to" speak out about those subjects, Alcorn added.

For state board Chairman Bill Cobey, the superintendent's short response to Alcorn at Thursday's meeting was confusing. 

"I don’t understand his comment. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, because I’m on the record as to where I stand," Cobey said. "I think I have spoken out, both publicly and privately, and I’ll continue to."

Cobey said he, too, would like the superintendent to be more vocal about some of the issues affecting the state education agency, "because (Johnson) does have an influence over" lawmakers. 

When the General Assembly decided to cut the education agency's operating funds by 6.2 percent – $3.2 million – this year and 13.9 percent – $7.3 million – next year, Johnson said he spoke with lawmakers about it. However, he said little about the cuts publicly at the time.

In an interview in July, Johnson said he wished the cuts had not been made but said he wasn’t more vocal about it because he didn’t think it would accomplish much.

"You know, we have a relationship with the General Assembly, and we were having those conversations," he said. "You had, again, a State Board that was screaming that the sky is going to fall, and that’s just not productive. You know, it can get you some time in headlines, but it’s not a productive conversation of what do we really need to be doing to improve this department."

Thursday's State Board of Education meeting included several tense moments between board members and Johnson, including one discussion about principal pay. Board members voted unanimously to send a letter to lawmakers to outline a concern they have with the state's principal pay plan.

Board member Eric Davis asked Chairman Cobey and Superintendent Johnson to both sign the letter, saying it would send a powerful, unifying message if it came from both leaders. But Johnson declined, later telling WRAL News in a statement that he wanted to talk with lawmakers himself and did not think it was productive "to try to negotiate through the media."

In an interview after Thursday's board meeting, Cobey said he believes Johnson had "an obligation" to sign the letter. "(But) there’s no sanctions if he decides not to sign that letter, and I’m OK with signing it myself," Cobey said.

The letter was eventually sent to lawmakers with one signature – Cobey's.