Guest Editorial: Superintendent, N.C. board battle should end

Guest Editorial: Superintendent, N.C. board battle should end
April 27
09:00 2017

It’s true that Mark Johnson, elected as state superintendent of Public Instruction last year (after serving two years on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools board), won the office fair and square.

But Johnson has an outsized idea of what his powers should be in an agency that has a traditional line of authority that starts, really, at the State Board of Education. A lawsuit involving the fight over power between the board and Johnson is a waste of time and energy.

The relationship between the board and the superintendent has been tense over the years, with power struggles cropping up now and then. Long-time Superintendent June Atkinson, a Democrat whom Johnson defeated, clashed on occasion with a board dominated by Republicans and chaired by a Republican, former U.S. Rep. Bill Cobey.

But now Republicans are squaring off against each other – largely over Johnson’s belief that as the elected superintendent, he ought to be in charge of everything, which includes hiring key staff without the board’s approval. In a curious development, some Republicans in the General Assembly want to give Johnson several hundred thousand dollars to hire people without the board’s approval.

The board has clear constitutional authority, even if it puts Johnson in an unusual position among officials elected statewide. But Johnson, who’s demonstrated something of a hardline Republican ideology favoring public money vouchers to facilitate people sending their kids to private school and greater expansion of charter schools, is in his mid-30s with limited experience (he is a lawyer and former school board member in Forsyth County).

The truth is, given his inexperience, he ought to recognize that working with his board is more productive than fighting, and that he could learn something from Cobey, who is a conservative Republican but has demonstrated he understands the need to listen and compromise.

The state’s public school structure is meant to maximize input from parents and the public. There is the appointed state board, locally elected boards, a state superintendent, local superintendents. Money for schools comes from the state, but local governments often provide teacher supplements and school construction money.

Johnson says he ought to be able to hire his own people, but the state board has gone ahead and hired some people for high-level jobs based on their experience and the board’s judgment. That seems reasonable, and the power struggle, looking at it from the outside, seems more about Johnson’s wish to consolidate power and the board’s intention to show him there are limitations to that power that are in a way unique to this agency.

The legal fight should end. It is not productive in any way, and both the State Board and Johnson have better things to do.

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