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Come on: About the strife between the State Board and Superintendent Johnson

You’ve seen a lot on EdNC and in on other news outlets about the friction between state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson and the State Board of Education. It started almost as soon as Johnson began his tenure thanks, in part, to legislation passed by the General Assembly in December 2016. That legislation, House Bill 17, transferred some of the powers of the State Board to Johnson, effectively giving Johnson control over the Department of Public Instruction and cutting the State Board out of the loop. 

Superintendent Mark Johnson on the second day of his first State Board of Education meeting (Alex Granados/EducationNC)

The State Board quickly sued and what followed was a series of court cases that ultimately ended with Johnson’s win at the Supreme Court, though the State Board also claimed victory even though the Court allowed the legislation to stand. 

Since then, Johnson has reorganized the department, some prominent staffers have left or been fired, new hires have come aboard, and multiple State Board members have retired from the Board, including long-time Chair Bill Cobey.

Superintendent Mark Johnson, left, and State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey lead the May 2017 meeting of the State Board (Alex Granados/EducationNC)

But throughout all of this, there has been visible and palpable tension between the State Board and Johnson. The State Board has chided Johnson for not being vocal enough about budget cuts at the department and other important education issues, while Johnson has criticized wastefulness and a culture of complacency at the Department of Public Instruction under the rule of the State Board. 

After the Supreme Court decision this summer, as Johnson announced his reorganization, things seemed to be taking a turn. At a State Board meeting where Johnson explained the reorganization, he took time during his public comments to talk about the importance of the State Board and to express his gratitude for input on the reorganization received from certain State Board members. 

But during the most recent September meeting of the State Board, tensions spilled over again as some Board members criticized Johnson for taking certain actions without even notifying them. In particular, they were upset about Johnson using Read to Achieve funds to furnish iPads for state reading teachers without talking to the Board first and for holding a press conference about school safety that they weren’t included in. 

Superintendent Mark Johnson announces the purchase of an iPad for every K-3 reading teacher in the state at the August 2018 Council of State meeting (Alex Granados/EducationNC)

State Board members said he needed to be transparent, while Johnson said that this kind of arguing wasn’t productive during State Board meetings and if they had something to say they should call him. 

But while the State Board and Johnson work out their issues publicly, the audience at State Board meetings and listening at home have their own feelings about what’s happening. Certainly, those feelings aren’t uniform, with some thinking that Johnson is getting a bum deal while others cheer on the State Board for challenging him. But as someone who attends just about every State Board meeting, I can tell you that one of the primary emotions I feel when the bickering begins is discomfort. And I’m not the only one. 

At the most recent meeting, as State Board members needled Johnson, I heard one member of the crowd say in an exasperated voice, “Come on.”

At this point the question is: is it argument for argument’s sake or an important debate about public policies in the best interests of our students, schools, and state?

State Board of Education members at their August 2017 meeting. Liz Bell/EducationNC

When these uncomfortable moments come up in the Board meetings going forward — if they do — I’ll be asking you, North Carolina, to weigh in and let us know if you are tired of the arguing or think it furthers our building of the 21st century education system our kids deserve. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.