State Board of Ed Chair urges lawmakers to stay out of dispute over expanding Superintendent’s personal staff

State Board of Ed Chair urges lawmakers to stay out of dispute over expanding Superintendent’s personal staff

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State Superintendent Mark Johnson (L) and State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey (R).

The leader of North Carolina’s top school board wants state lawmakers to stay out of a broiling dispute over the powers of new GOP Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson.

Bill Cobey, chairman of the State Board of Education, told Policy Watch Thursday that a legislative proposal to more than double Johnson’s personal staff would harm the state’s public school leadership.

That’s because House Bill 838, which earned the approval of the House Education Committee Thursday, would chop eight vacant positions in the state’s K-12 administrative offices to do so.

“If anything, we need more personnel, not only in the department, but more personnel out in the districts,” said Cobey. “We don’t need to be cutting back or increasing his personal staff.”

Cobey says all of the jobs, including the role of a chief performance officer, are necessary, despite the fact, as GOP sponsors of the bill point out, some of the posts have been vacant for more than a year.

According to Cobey, that’s because, in some cases, state board leaders have been unable to find the right fit for the money allocated.

“I believe the superintendent has enough personal staff,” added Cobey. “To more than double his personal staff, I have no idea what they would do. He has the whole department at his disposal. There are probably 700 people he can call on for various things.”

“I have no idea what an additional four or five people would do for him,” added Cobey this week.

The legislation comes with Johnson and the State Board of Education, which is also controlled by Republicans, wrestling over the powers of the superintendent’s office. That includes a dispute over the new superintendent’s ability to hire and fire top staff in the Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

Johnson complained in a court filing last week that the state board had “severely limited” his authority in his first months in office, dismissing his recommendations for top posts.

According to Johnson’s filing, board members advertised for positions and followed their own committee’s recommendations in March when they named new chief financial officer Adam Levinson, a former staffer for Johnson’s Democratic predecessor June Atkinson.

The cuts proposed in House Bill 838 would free nearly $600,000 for Johnson to create up to five positions. The GOP-sponsored bill—which is expected to be up for a vote by the full House next week—would grant Johnson broad discretion to set pay and job descriptions for all five positions without the approval of Cobey’s board.

“I just wish that we as a body showed our governor the same respect that we intend to show our superintendent in this bill,” said Rep. Cecil Brockman, a Guilford County Democrat who vice-chairs the House Education Committee.

Brockman was referring to the Republican-controlled legislature’s controversial move late last year to curtail the appointment powers of new Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Meanwhile, members of Brockman’s committee gave their approval to House Bill 838 Thursday, although some Democrats questioned whether the proposal would only stoke divisions in the state’s chief public schools agency.

“To give the superintendent five hands walking around doing his business without the control or input from the state board, I have some serious concerns about that,” said Rep. Charles Graham, a Democrat from Robeson County. “I’m going to support the bill, but I do have concerns about his posse.”

Republican lawmakers moved in December to consolidate more powers in the new GOP superintendent in December, but that law’s provisions are in limbo with a three-judge panel expected to hear the State Board of Education’s constitutional challenge this summer.

The conflict centers around interpretations of the state’s constitutional division of powers in public schools. According to the Constitution, Cobey’s board is directed to “supervise and administer” the public school system, while the superintendent acts as the board’s “secretary and chief administrative officer.”

GOP legislators behind the latest effort to expand the new superintendent’s reach said this week that they were told by Johnson’s office that he needs more discretion to create his own staff.

Since taking office, Johnson has filled three positions under his office that do not require state board approval. Among those posts, two were former staffers of Republican ex-Gov. Pat McCrory.

“Out of the 800 or so employees at DPI, if he has maybe as many as eight, possibly nine, of those 800 that he can choose and not have to justify his choices to somebody else, that’s appropriate to assist him in carrying out his duties under the Constitution,” said Rep. Hugh Blackwell, an influential Burke County Republican who co-sponsored House Bill 838.

Johnson’s office did not respond to Policy Watch requests for comment on the legislation, but Blackwell says he does not know what jobs the new superintendent is seeking to create. Blackwell added that he believes they would be “high-level” posts.

The legislation earned guarded approval from education committee Democrats such as Rep. Graig Meyer, an Orange County Democrat and former public school administrator, who said he had “no reason” to oppose the new positions for Johnson’s office.

“To me, it’s not partisan,” said Meyer. “If this was a superintendent who was a Democrat, I’d probably want them to have the same thing.”

Still, Meyer said he hopes the legislature will act to more clearly outline the division of powers in the state schools.

“I’m a little bit worried that this solution is going to create a superintendent’s team within the department that may or may not work well with the rest of the department,” added Meyer. “That’s because we still have the underlying structural problems of governance. I just hope at some point we’ll come back to deal with this.”

House Bill 838 will require a passing vote from the full chamber before the General Assembly’s April 27 crossover deadline to be considered further this session.