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State Board of Education loses power over DPI leadership

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson sent a letter July 2 to top leaders at the State Department of Public Instruction (DPI) telling them that they now report only to him. 

These leaders were in positions called dual-report positions, meaning they reported both to the Superintendent and to the State Board of Education. 

“With the 8 June 2018 North Carolina Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of Session Law 2016-126, I am now exercising my authority under that Act to manage administrative and supervisory personnel of the Department. Accordingly, I am changing your position appointment from “dual report” to reporting [only to the Superintendent directly] or [to the Superintendent through the Deputy State Superintendent]. The change in your appointment is effective immediately,” Johnson wrote. 

In the letter, Johnson said he changed the positions to “reduce ambiguity” that comes from having a dual-report role and “to increase accountability and efficiency.” 

“I continue to value your role and contribution to the agency and the educators and students we serve,” he wrote. “I look forward to our future collaboration.”

The roles affected are: 

  • Deputy State Superintendent;
  • Chief Financial Officer;
  • Chief Information Technology Officer;
  • Chief Academic and Digital Learning Officer;
  • Chief District and School Support Officer;
  • Director of Communication and Information Services;
  • Director of Human Resources;
  • Internal Auditor;
  • Executive Director of the Office of Charter Schools; and
  • Superintendent, Achievement (i.e., Innovative) School District.

As Johnson’s letter states, this comes on the heels of Johnson’s early June victory at the State Supreme Court, which upheld House Bill 17. That bill, passed in December 2016, transferred certain powers from the State Board to Johnson and gave Johnson ultimate authority over the State Department of Public Instruction. The State Board sued over the bill shortly after its passage and had been in litigation with Johnson and the state ever since.  

While the top court did uphold House Bill 17, attorneys for the State Board called the decision a victory for them as well. They said the decision affirmed the State Board’s “ultimate authority under the Constitution to supervise and administer the state’s public school system.”

State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey said it was actually language in House Bill 374 that eliminated the dual-report positions. House Bill 374 passed during the most recent short session. It was introduced after the Supreme Court’s decision on the lawsuit between Johnson and the State Board. 

The language repealed policies pertaining to the State Board’s responsibility for supervising and administering the public school system and the funds associated with that, as well as the delegation of authority from the State Board to the superintendent. It states, however, the State Board may readopt “rules or policies related to internal management that are not inconsistent” with statutory requirements. 

Cobey sent a letter to Johnson in early June condemning the legislation’s language and accusing Johnson of seeking it out from lawmakers, something which an attorney for Johnson denied. 

As to Johnson’s official elimination of dual-report positions, Cobey said he wishes it weren’t so. 

“We had a system which, from our viewpoint, was working,” he said in an interview. 

Cobey said, however, the Board understands this is how things are. He said the Board will need to adopt rules and regulations going forward on how it will relate to DPI leaders and the Superintendent. 

Philip Price, former Chief Financial Officer for DPI, said dual-reporting positions did not always exist at DPI. They became standard under the leadership of Superintendent of Public Instruction Bob Etheridge, who served from 1989-1996. Price worked on and off at DPI in various positions for 35 years. While he said the change is not a big deal, it was shocking to some DPI staffers he is still in contact with. 

“It was concerning considering the timing and the Board not being involved in the conversation,” Price said. 

The change to dual-report positions also comes not long after an announcement from Johnson of the elimination of 61 positions, mostly from the department that oversees efforts to turn around low-performing schools. Of the 61 positions, 21 were already vacant. The cuts were made to meet $5.1 million in General Assembly mandated reductions to DPI. Both Johnson and the State Board opposed the reductions and asked the General Assembly to delay them. Lawmakers did not reverse or delay the cuts during this most recent short session, though they did let DPI offset some of the budget reductions for one year using $3 million in reversions. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.