The North Carolina Constitution gives state schools Superintendent June Atkinson authority to run the state education bureaucracy, Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled Friday. Hobgood said the state Board of Education violated the constitution when, at the direction of Gov. Beverly Perdue, it hired Bill Harrison to be the chief executive officer of the state Department of Public Instruction. Perdue also made Harrison the chairman of the state Board of Education. The ruling does not affect that role. Even though the superintendent is a statewide elected position, the office's power has waned over the years as lawmakers, governors and the board have cut away the duties tied to it. Before Harrison, a governor-selected deputy superintendent held the reins. Meanwhile, Atkinson, in her second term, until Friday supervised just four people. More than 800 people answered to Harrison. Harrison's salary is $265,000, while Atkinson's is $123,198.
In April, Atkinson sued, saying the governor, legislature and state board violated the state constitution when they stripped her office of its power. On Friday, Hobgood agreed. "The General Assembly and the state Board of Education do not have the power, without a constitutional amendment, to deprive the duly elected superintendent of public instruction of her inherent power as chief administrative officer of the state Board of Education," Hobgood said. The acts that put Harrison in charge are "null and void and unenforceable," Hobgood said. Atkinson said the ruling affirms the will of nearly 2.2 million voters who elected her in 2008. "I am grateful that I will have the opportunity to lead and serve the children in our state," she said. The ruling may create a conflict between Atkinson and Harrison, who now answers to her instead of a board that he chairs. "I respect him a lot and feel as if he respects me, and I'm sure that I will do whatever I can and believe that he will do whatever he can so that we will have a good working relationship," Atkinson said.
In a written statement, Harrison said he would look over the ruling and "continue my close working relationship with the superintendent and the governor to increase accountability and ensure North Carolina's public schools are globally competitive." Perdue also issued a statement indicating she is looking over the decision. "I am reviewing the court's ruling," Perdue said. "I look forward to continuing to work with Dr. Harrison and Superintendent Atkinson to achieve our goal of providing a quality education for North Carolina's children." Attorney General Roy Cooper's office indicated Friday that it will appeal the ruling, and unsuccessfully sought to delay the ruling's implementation until that appeal is heard.(Paul Woolverton, THE FAYETTEVILLE OBSERVER, 7/19/09; THE NEWS & OBSERVER, 7/18/09).