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Strife between State Board of Education and Superintendent Mark Johnson continues

Bill Cobey, chair of the State Board of Education, reacted today to a relatively unnoticed provision in House Bill 374. In the statement, Cobey, speaking on behalf of the Board, accuses Superintendent Mark Johnson of seeking out the legislation, which Cobey says disregards constitutional principles. 

The provision language states that 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the funds associated with that, as well as the delegation of authority from the State Board to the superintendent are repealed. It states, however, that the State Board may readopt “rules or policies related to internal management that are not inconsistent” with statutory requirements. Other than this and one other provision, House Bill 374 had little to do with education. 

This provision came after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Johnson in a lawsuit the State Board of Education undertook to challenge House Bill 17. The legislation was passed during a special session of the General Assembly in December 2016 and rearranged the responsibilities held by the superintendent, transferring certain powers of the State Board of Education to Johnson. Though the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of House Bill 17, both sides in the case claimed victory when the Court handed down its judgment. 

Attorneys for the State Board said the ruling reiterated that the State Board has the ultimate authority over education in the state while Johnson praised the Court’s conclusion that he is the leader of the state Department of Public Instruction. Find more details on this case here

In his statement responding to House Bill 374, Cobey references a letter the State Board sent to Johnson on June 13 that “reiterated the Board’s commitment to cooperation.”

“Instead of engaging with the Board, the Superintendent and his staff immediately sought new legislation from the General Assembly,” Cobey wrote. “This new legislation was designed to expand the Superintendent’s role in ways that disregard the constitutional principals that the Supreme Court reaffirmed just days earlier…”

Cobey’s statement also says that the Supreme Court’s decision on House Bill 17 declares that the State Board can “govern the mechanics of the relationship between the Board and the Superintendent, as well as how their respective departments will operate internally.” Cobey says the provision in House Bill 374 repeals the Board’s ability to do that. 

Lindsey Wakely, chief of staff and legal counsel to Johnson, released a statement in response to Cobey’s comments. 

“The Supreme Court of North Carolina unanimously and clearly ruled against Chairman Bill Cobey’s lawsuit. Despite losing his lawsuit, Chairman Cobey appears determined to ignore the will of both the General Assembly and the Supreme Court of North Carolina and continue to waste taxpayer dollars on his frivolous lawsuit. The state of North Carolina and Mark Johnson won. Cobey lost. Mark Johnson will manage the N.C. Department of Public Instruction with the full authorities granted to the superintendent per House Bill 17,” she wrote. 

Hardy Lewis, legal counsel for the superintendent in the Supreme Court case, rejected Cobey’s claim that Johnson sought out the provision in HB 374. 

“The idea that they’re saying that the superintendent initiated this process by which this bill got passed is ridiculous,” he said in an interview. “They did not do anything of the sort.”

The June 13 letter from the State Board to Johnson can be read here. Scroll down to just after the Board’s statement on HB 374. 

See the State Board’s full statement below. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.