Sandra Byrd has been a decorated North Carolina high school teacher in western North Carolina and an associate professor at UNC-Asheville, where she also served as assistant provost.
So she seemed a natural fit when Gov. Roy Cooper announced in May that Byrd was one of three new nominees for seats on the State Board of Education, North Carolina’s top public school board.
But as of today, nearly five months after Cooper’s proclamation, Byrd says she doesn’t know when, if ever, she’ll actually assume her duties on the board.
“I appreciate the governor’s confidence in me, and I am looking forward to serving on this board,” says Byrd. “But I don’t know when that will be.”
Byrd is one of three state board hopefuls caught, once again, in limbo with the N.C. General Assembly. Legislative confirmation is required under the state constitution for these powerful state board members, charged with administering state school initiatives and leading North Carolina’s 115 local school districts. But, despite no constitutional bounds on the time frame for confirmation, it was once a speedy process for most nominees, taking weeks or days.
Yet in recent years, lawmakers’ inaction on these key appointments from the state’s governors, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, has slowed to a crawl.
And political observers and public officials in Raleigh today say Cooper’s nominees may be bound for similar delays, if lawmakers act at all, despite the fact that the Democratic governor has more than three years remaining in his term and three board members—Patricia Willoughby, Reginald Kenan and Wayne McDevitt—are still serving months after their terms lapsed.
Cooper nominated Kenan for another term on the board in May, but McDevitt and Willoughby—both of whom have served for 16 years—are not seeking to remain. And, like their replacements—Byrd and J.B. Buxton, a former state school administrator who once acted as legislative director for the state board and education adviser to former Gov. Mike Easley—they’re waiting for a sign from the state legislature.
Some say they don’t expect an official vetting of Cooper’s board nominations this year, predicting it may stretch beyond even the General Assembly’s return for their regular “short” session next spring.
“As far as I can tell, there’s no plan to take action one way or the other,” says Willoughby.
If so, it would be another delay in filling a board that, under the state’s constitution, is mostly filled by appointees of the governor.
When former Gov. Bev Perdue tapped three nominees for state board seats in 2011, the Republican-controlled legislature refused to act for two years, until incoming GOP Gov. Pat McCrory put forward a slate of Republican-favored nominees.
Confirmation even proved an obstacle for McCrory, when the Republican governor’s April 2015 nominees—former Wake school board member Patti Head and Samaritan’s Purse attorney Todd Chasteen—were mired in legislative gridlock.
When lawmakers approved McCrory’s appointees in June 2016, Head was gone, replaced by Garner businesswoman and former Wake board member Amy Bannister White.
Much of that discussion happened behind closed doors, and the reason for today’s delays seems, likewise, nebulous.
“Our office has asked repeatedly and the General Assembly has given us no indication that they plan to take up the nominations,” Samantha Cole, spokeswoman for Gov. Cooper, told Policy Watch this week.
Influential members of the state Senate’s Select Committee on Nominations, such as committee co-chairs Bill Rabon and Tommy Tucker, did not respond to Policy Watch questions about state board nominations.
And Department of Public Instruction spokesman Drew Elliot said lawmakers have given his office no timeline for taking up the board’s lapsed terms.
Meanwhile, Bill Cobey, chairman of the State Board of Education, said he’s received “absolutely no feedback” on the board nominations, but he says he’s “grateful” members on lapsed terms have agreed to stay on for the time being.
“They feel like 16 years is long enough for them to serve,” said Cobey. “They’re ready to leave, but so far they’ve been willing to serve. It’s really advantageous to have a full complement of board members.”
State law allows for board members to remain until their successors are confirmed, although Willoughby, a veteran of North Carolina public schools who once served as Interim Superintendent of Public Instruction, acknowledged she’s ready to depart.
“Sixteen years is enough,” says Willoughby. “You need new people. And (Cooper) deserves to have his appointees confirmed or not. Vote them up or vote them down.”
Legislators are expected to return next month, although most say the primary focus will be redistricting. Yet Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Durham Democrat who sits on the Senate nominations committee, says the panel has had more than enough time to discuss the state board nominations since Cooper’s nominations were announced in May.
He adds that lawmakers have the flexibility to take up the matter next month if they so choose.
“It’s a matter of when they choose to act,” said McKissick. “And if they’re playing a waiting game, the governor has spoken. He’s taken the actions he’s charged with in his duties, and it’d be great for us to take it up when we return. If they’re going to play this same kind of game, it would certainly be irresponsible.”
N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) President Mark Jewell, who lobbies for the state’s public school teachers at the General Assembly, described the confirmation delays as “political gamesmanship,” adding that inaction on state board nominations will harm school districts awaiting guidance from North Carolina’s top school board.
“This is just another roadblock that’s really impacting the policymaking board of the state public school system,” said Jewell. “It’s unfair to our educators and, most importantly, to our 1.5 million students.”
Power struggles between North Carolina’s executive and legislative branch have been a seemingly perpetual part of the Raleigh political landscape in recent years. Cooper’s office filed suit this year over Republican legislators’ move in late 2016 to weaken the newly-elected Democrat’s power to name political appointees in state government and within the governor’s cabinet.
McCrory also tangled in court with legislators over appointment powers for policymaking state commissions and panels, with judges ruling last year that the General Assembly had overstepped its bounds in commandeering the governor’s powers.
Members of the State Board of Education have also been increasingly at odds with the legislature, filing a lawsuit over the General Assembly’s December vote to shuttle greater powers in the state schools budget and DPI administration to newly-elected Republican Superintendent Mark Johnson.
Thus far, judges have sided with Johnson and the legislature, although the issue is bound for the state Supreme Court.
Willoughby said she normally avoids comment on controversial, legislative matters, but she seemed particularly irked by the General Assembly’s recent approach to state board confirmations.
She said Patti Head, a former McCrory nominee and Republican, was widely respected by Democratic and GOP public school leaders, but lawmakers didn’t act on the ex-governor’s selections until after her name was removed.
“It’s a power game,” Willoughby said.
Willoughby said she’s “thrilled” by Cooper’s selection of Buxton to replace her on the board, adding that she would remain in her post until he’s confirmed.
“But I’m anxious for the process to be done as it’s designed,” she said. “The legislators need to come to terms with the fact that they need to take action on the governor’s nominations.”
Cobey, meanwhile, opted out of taking a side this week on the lingering State Board of Education nominations.
“It’s none of my business,” Cobey said. “I don’t want anybody to think it is. It’s not. It’s the General Assembly’s business.”
Cobey—a former GOP congressman with an extensive background in state politics, including a stint as chairman of the N.C. Republican Party—was one of a handful of McCrory appointees to step into the void in 2013 when lawmakers rebuffed Perdue’s nominations.
And Cobey is one of three board members, including Rebecca Taylor and Greg Alcorn, whose terms will lapse in March 2019, meaning Cooper is expected to make another round of nominations for the top K-12 board during his first term.
The board chair added that he would not be asking for re-appointment when that time comes. “I will be 80 years old,” he said. “I think that’s a time when it’s probably good to move on.”
Cobey isn’t the only one. Byrd and other Cooper nominees say they hope to assume the mantle if they go before the state legislature for confirmation. Whenever that may be.
“I wish I had a crystal ball,” says Byrd. “But I’m an educator, not a politician. I would hope that education would transcend politics, but we haven’t seen that yet.”