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Amid protests, NC legislature passes bill strengthening state Superintendent power

The North Carolina legislature passed a bill today during their surprise special session that shifts powers from the State Board of Education to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Republican Mark Johnson, a Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board member, beat long-time Democratic incumbent June Atkinson last month and will take over the now much more powerful state Superintendent office in January.

House Bill 17 establishes the state Superintendent as the head of the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), which was formerly the role of the State Board of Education. That means the Superintendent will now administer all rules passed by the State Board through DPI.

The state Superintendent will now have direct control “over all matters relating to the direct supervision and administration of the public school system.” Beforehand, the superintendent had only the powers delegated to him by the State Board.

Protestors, mostly from the NC NAACP and Progress North Carolina, packed the galleries of both chambers today and yesterday, protesting what they see as the legislature’s “power grab” and lack of regard for the democratic process. At least 35 people were arrested and charged with trespassing and the violation of building rules.

Transferred to the Superintendent from the State Board will also be the duty of administering funds appropriated for DPI, appointing and firing administrative and supervisory personnel to DPI’s staff, entering into contracts for DPI operations, and administering special funds to manage grant money from outside sources.

Under the bill, the State Board still has hiring and firing power over certain staff positions: two attorneys, a paralegal, and an administrative assistant.

House Bill 17 also takes away the State Board’s authority over the Office of Charter Schools and gives the state Superintendent the power to appoint the executive director of the office.

The bill also gets rid of the State Board’s advisory committee that was going to make a recommendation on who runs the state’s Achievement School District (ASD), and it gives the power to choose the head of the district to the state Superintendent. The ASD is a school district created by the legislature in the short session that will be comprised of five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, regardless of their geographic location. Charter operators may run the schools, which the ASD Superintendent will choose.

The bill also gives the state Superintendent the power of appointing both the local superintendent and high school non-voting advisors to the State Board. That used to be the governor’s duty.

Johnson released a statement Friday afternoon thanking the General Assembly for their passage of House Bill 17 and supporting changes in the relationship between the SBE and the Superintendent which, he said, will make things clearer and less complicated.

Speaker Moore, Senate Pro-Temp Berger, Governor McCrory, and Lieutenant Governor Forest care deeply about public education in North Carolina, and I commend them for their commitment to our students,” Johnson’s statement reads. “While we might not always agree, we do agree that the relationship between DPI and the NC Board of Education regarding personnel was unnecessarily complex and bureaucratic.

“HB17 will help usher in an era of greater transparency at DPI by eliminating the more confusing aspects of the relationship between the NC Superintendent and the NC Board of Education. This will better serve constituents visiting Raleigh as our working relationship will be more similar to how local superintendents and their respective boards of education work together across North Carolina. I thank the NC House and NC Senate for their hard work on these straight-forward, common-sense reforms.”

Yesterday, when asked if Johnson requested the powers included in the bill, Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, said: “He directly indicated that he needed the power to implement change. We felt, in looking at what had been done in the past, what is done now, that we were willing to do that. We went the extra mile.”

The State Board of Education scheduled a two-hour meeting for Tuesday, Dec. 20 to discuss the bill’s implications. State Board Chair Bill Cobey released a statement Thursday opposing the legislation, along with Vice-chair Buddy Collins, saying that House Bill 17 “raises Constitutional concerns and eliminates checks and balances that are important to the students of North Carolina.”

Cobey also has since made comments to the right-leaning Carolina Journal that the State Board would have a strong case to challenge the constitutionality of the bill.

Debate on the bill continued Friday after it passed the House Thursday. It started in the Senate committee on education/higher education. Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, chairs the committee and presented the bill, explaining its intent.

Barefoot said that he sees the legislation as a way to revert back to the responsibilities the state superintendent had before the mid-1990s.

“To be effective as head of (the Department of Public Instruction), our state Superintendent should have the administrative power and flexibility to execute the platform voters elected him or her to do,” Barefoot said.

But many Democrats saw the legislation as an attempt to give additional authority to Republican Johnson and strip power from Democratic Governor-Elect Roy Cooper.

Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, said the legislation is disrespectful to the will of the voters of North Carolina and values votes for Republican officials over those who vote for Democrats as “more deserving.”

Bryant said the only reason the Superintendent’s powers are now increasing is because a Republican is now in office. She said the General Assembly has “limited and hampered and demeaned (June Atkinson’s) ability to lead this agency consistently.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.