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State High Court Upholds Ruling That Gives State Superintendent More Authority

Beth Cortez-Neavel

The North Carolina Supreme Court has upheld an earlier three-judge panel decision that state legislators can shift some of the controls of the public school system from the state board of education to the superintendent. The court issued the ruling Friday with both sides declaring victory.

State school board members and Superintendent Mark Johnson have been fighting over this issue for the past two years. When Johnson was elected superintendent in 2016, the first Republican to hold the office in more than 100 years, the Republican-controlled General Assembly soon passed legislation shifting some of the board’s authority to the superintendent. That included giving Johnson the power to administer some education funds, oversee charter schools, hire senior-level aides and manage the state school system’s day-to-day operations.

Credit Gwendolyn Glenn/WFAE
North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson

School board members argued that those duties were reserved for the board in the state’s constitution. But the Supreme Court justices ruled that the board’s constitutional authority is preserved in the legislative changes. In the opinion, they wrote that on “face value,” board of education members would still have, “…continued responsibility for the supervision and administration of the public school system and the explicit ability to adopt appropriate rules and regulations governing the duties that have been assigned to the Superintendent.”

Both sides are declaring victory. In a statement, Johnson said, “Today’s ruling validates the common-sense proposition that the duly-elected Superintendent of Public Instruction should lead the Department of Public Instruction.”

Through their attorneys, state school board members issued a statement saying they are pleased with the court’s ruling because they believe it, “…reaffirms that the State Board of Education — and not the Superintendent of Public Instruction — has the ultimate authority under the Constitution to supervise and administer the state’s public school system.”

The board’s attorneys say they interpret the ruling to mean that the board also has final say over the structure of the relationship between board members and the superintendent and how their departments will operate.

The statement said board members are pleased that the court ruled that regulations approved by the board that affect the management of internal state-level entities will not have to go through the state’s Rules Review Commission.

Johnson says it is unfortunate that hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars had to be spent to resolve the issue of who runs the state’s public school system. He added that he’s glad the fight is over and is ready to work with state school board members on other matters.

State board members called an emergency meeting Friday, where their attorneys say they will continue to study the court’s ruling.