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Supreme Court grants stay in State Board lawsuit against Superintendent Johnson

It is business as usual for the State Board of Education after the state Supreme Court announced a temporary stay in the Board’s lawsuit against Superintendent Mark Johnson. 

The document from the Supreme Court does not provide an end date to the stay, meaning the new powers granted to Johnson by the state legislature in late 2016 are indefinitely on hold. 

“I am disappointed by the ruling and by the State Board’s continued defense of the status quo for our public schools,” Johnson said in an e-mailed response to the Supreme Court’s decision. 

State Board Chair Bill Cobey, however, was pleased. 

“I definitely think it was the right thing to do,” he said. “And I’m very appreciative of their action. And I don’t think now’s a time to change until the case is fully considered by the Supreme Court.”

The Board filed suit against the state — with Johnson officially joining the suit later — after the General Assembly passed House Bill 17 last December. Under the law, Johnson becomes the chief authority of the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), a role previously held by the State Board. He also gets direct supervision and administration of the public school system, as well as the power to make decisions pertaining to the termination of certain personnel at DPI, under the legislation.

A three-judge panel granted a motion for summary judgement in favor of Johnson in July, saying the State Board did not prove the transfer of powers to Johnson were unconstitutional. At the time, they also put into place a 60-day stay that expired in mid-September.

That prompted another round in court as the State Board sought to have that stay extended, arguing that appellate courts needed time to consider imposing their own stay on the transfer of powers. The three-judge panel then granted a 30-day stay that expired Monday. 

The State Board wants to skip the Court of Appeals and go directly to the Supreme Court as the next step in this litigation, but Cobey said he had no idea if that was going to happen. For now, he said things are as they should be.

“Right now, everything’s in place that was in place when HB 17 was passed. We’re getting our job done,” he said. “It’s our hope the court will support our position on the constitutionality of the authority granted us…and that we will have clarity going forward. Not just for this Board and for this superintendent, but for future Boards and future superintendents.” 

The State Board held a conference call this afternoon to discuss yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling, Cobey said. The discussion was held in closed session. Cobey anticipated tomorrow’s scheduled conference call would be canceled. It was scheduled just to make sure there would be adequate time for the Board to ask all the questions it had. He did not anticipate any Board action from the call(s). 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.