When State Board of Education members Bill Cobey and Becky Taylor step down next month, it will mark the third time in six months that members of North Carolina’s top school board depart before their term is up.
And for a board that’s seen a number of gubernatorial appointments slowed by a perilous confirmation process before the GOP-controlled state legislature, it will mark another opportunity for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to fill seats without the approval of his Republican nemeses in the legislature.
“With the legislature not approving the governor’s appointments, really the only way that a board member’s seat gets filled appears to be the way that Bill and Becky are going,” the board’s vice chairman, Eric Davis, said Tuesday. “That’s the only way a new member gets appointed.”
Both Cobey and Taylor—whose terms expire next March—acknowledged this week that Cooper’s ongoing fracas with lawmakers, and board appointments languishing in limbo, played some part in their decisions to leave sooner rather than later.
Board members Tricia Willoughby and Wayne McDevitt remain on the board today, more than 16 months after their terms expired. For months, state lawmakers were mum on Cooper’s nominations for those seats—retired professor Sandra Byrd and former state schools administrator J.B. Buxton—until voting on partisan lines in June to deny both appointments.
Willoughby and McDevitt continue to await their replacements, but have agreed to stay on as board members in the interim. Both have now served more than 17 years on the board, including two eight-year terms and, now, one additional year neither wanted to serve.
“I didn’t want to get into that position,” said Cobey, who, like Taylor, is an appointee of Republican ex-Gov. Pat McCrory. “Nor did (Taylor). We’re ready for our terms to end.”
When former board vice chair A.L. “Buddy” Collins announced his resignation in March, Cooper quickly named Greensboro lawyer and former Guilford County school board member Alan Duncan to the vacancy.
A spokeswoman for Cooper’s office declined to talk about the new board departures this week, but she said finding new appointments is “in process.” The governor’s new nominees would be charged with serving out the remainder of Cobey and Taylor’s terms, but it’s conceivable that Cooper’s appointments could stay on after their March 31, 2019, expiration if lawmakers take no action on new appointments at that time too.
In his resignation letter, Cobey was tight-lipped about the reasons for his departure, but the longtime Republican, a former U.S. congressman and ex-chair of the statewide GOP, has led the board during bitter breaks with the Republican-dominated legislature over public education funding cuts and new powers granted to Superintendent Mark Johnson.
Cobey told Policy Watch Tuesday that he also wanted to clear a path for new leaders.
“I’ve had a history of moving on when new leadership takes over,” Cobey said. “I don’t need to be in anybody’s shadow. I’m sure they will elect an outstanding chairman and vice chairman. It’s really a very gifted and dedicated board. I’ve never been on a better board of people.”
Collins said he stepped down this year in order to run for a county commission seat in Forsyth County, while Taylor said in an Aug. 3 resignation letter that she’d moved into a new home outside of the northeast region she was appointed to serve on the state board.
But Taylor also told Policy Watch this week that the prospect of enduring a lengthy wait for a replacement was on her mind.
“To be honest, I would not want to get into that position either,” Taylor said. “I think for me and Bill too, there’s a good chance that if we stayed on to the end of our terms, I think there’s a possibility we could have been stuck and waiting too.”
Representatives for state House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger did not respond to Policy Watch inquiries this week, but state Rep. Graig Meyer, an Orange County Democrat and former public school administrator who sits on the House Education Committee, blasted GOP lawmakers for their handling of the state education board.
“People want education leadership to be bipartisan and collaborative,” said Meyer. “Cobey and Taylor were trying to do it the right way. But their own party made it too hard. I’m sure Gov. Cooper will appoint replacements who will continue to work with anyone interested in good education policy for all students.”
The drastic change in leadership at the state board is just one of a handful of tectonic shifts for North Carolina’s top school board since 2016.
Cobey’s board waged a bitter court battle with Johnson over his budget and staffing powers this year, clashed openly and often with the General Assembly over severe cuts at the Department of Public Instruction, and even fielded rumors—which never materialized into action—that state lawmakers might soon seek a constitutional amendment to do away with the board altogether.
Meanwhile, the turmoil over state board appointments is a relatively new conflict in North Carolina politics. Legislators balked on appointments by former Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, in 2011, allowing former Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, to arguably appoint more than his share of board members, including Cobey and Taylor.
The General Assembly is constitutionally obligated to take up the governor’s appointments, but the state constitution does not set a timeline for such a process. Nevertheless, state legislators typically took up board nominations in a timely manner, regardless of party affiliation, until sidestepping Perdue’s appointments.
Republican lawmakers revived the partisan maneuver after Cooper’s election in 2016, first brushing off Cooper’s nominees to fill Willoughby and McDevitt’s seats and ultimately voting those nominees down this year. Legislators did vote to allow the re-appointment of board member Reginald Kenan, but rebuffed Byrd and Buxton. In Buxton’s case, lawmakers provided no public reasoning for their vote.
“It was very difficult for me to understand,” said Willoughby, who once sat as the state’s interim superintendent of public instruction. “I thought J.B. Buxton would be confirmed and I would be gone by now.”
Willoughby has been relatively reserved in her criticism of the legislature, but this week she acknowledged the board has weathered difficult times in recent years.
“All this discussion about power, rules, authority, regulation and court cases can be a distraction from the reason that we all took these seats to the State Board of Education,” she said. “You want to be there focused on children.”
Willoughby added this week that she believes her fellow board members have taken the legislature’s treatment of board vacancies to heart.
“I think the board members are very committed to the work, and I don’t expect that to change whomever the governor appoints to fill those seats,” she said. “I absolutely trust it to be people who are committed to the work of public education in this seat. Unfortunately, board members have seen an up-close look at what’s happened with (McDevitt) and me. It’s unprecedented in this state.”
Cobey and Taylor are expected to sit for their final board meeting Sept. 5.