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Education Superintendent June Atkinson discusses lawsuit to restore authority to her office

After taking office, Gov. Bev Perdue made a bold move to shake up the state's education system. She created a new position called CEO of Public Schools to run the Department of Public Instruction. Now, the CEO is also chairman of the state board of education. The governor did this in an effort to clear up who's in charge of education. 

It's been a confusing issue since 1995 when the General Assembly stripped power from the elected Superintendent of Education and gave the state board authority to hire a deputy superintendent to run Public Instruction.

"I think it resulted in a degree of confusion to those out in the field regarding who was in charge and who was ultimately responsible. There just weren't clear lines of responsibility," Bill Harrison, the governor's choice for CEO of Public Schools, told WFAE in February.

Superintendent of Education June Atkinson agrees it's been a confusing situation, but she doesn't like the governor's solution. She believes the state constitution gives her office authority over the state's education system. Last week, she filed a lawsuit in hope of restoring education authority to her office. She spoke to WFAE Morning Edition host Scott Graf about her case.

June Atkinson: The situation of the authority of the state superintendent to run the Department of Public Instruction has been murky since the time that I have been state superintendent. And so that is one of the reasons why I thought it was time we have clarity about the role of the state superintendent, and what the (North Carolina) constitution says about the role of the state superintendent.

Scott Graf: Now you don't agree with the change that was made, obviously, but do you think some sort of change was necessary and could have been made to improve the position but still kept that power in your hands?

June Atkinson: I believe that 2.2 million people voted for me believing that I should run the Department of Public Instruction to carry out the policies of the state board of education. I believe that having a state superintendent to carry out those responsibilities is an efficient way to run the governance of North Carolina public school. With having a person serving in a dual role as state board chair and as chief executive officer and at the same time having a state superintendent we have very cloudy murky waters about the governance of public education.

Scott Graf: Unless I'm wrong you have not been asked to take a pay cut, so essentially you're still getting paid for the position you were elected to. But now you don't have all the pressure that came with that position, and some might say that's a pretty good gig - you obviously don't agree.

June Atkinson: Well what I would say why would you pay someone else to carry on the responsibilities of the state superintendent when the taxpayers are paying me? Why should you have another position created to do the work that constitutionally the state superintendent should be?

Scott Graf: I'm trying to get a feel for one thing you used to do in your job that after the change as of March 1 with (new CEO of Public Schools) Harrison taking over some of your powers that you no longer do now.

June Atkinson: One thing that has changed is that prior to his becoming chief executive officer and state board chair I met with the state board chair and deputy superintendent who is responsible for the day-to-day activities of the department of public instruction. And that isn't necessarily what is required of the person who has now a dual role with the department of public instruction and with the state board of education.

Scott Graf: In a lot of the states, this is an elected position. Do you feel like it should be in North Carolina?

June Atkinson: Well, our constitution requires the people of North Carolina to make that decision and states have several types of state governance systems. I believe there are advantages and disadvantages of each of those types of governance systems, and should the people of this state vote to have an appointed state superintendent, I'd say let the voices of the people be heard.