With lawsuit pending, State Board of Education taps top staffer, delegates another to Superintendent Mark Johnson

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

With a lawsuit pending over the hiring and firing powers of N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, the State Board of Education is re-assigning at least one top administrative role under Johnson’s authority.

But that move came moments before officials on the state’s top K-12 panel tapped a second-in-command at the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) that was not the new GOP superintendent’s choice for the role.

Under the flurry of votes held near the conclusion of Thursday’s meeting, the state board will jettison sole power over the chief of staff position to Johnson, who is expected to name his choice for the role in the coming days.

Board members also agreed, with one dissenting vote, to name DPI administrator Maria Pitre-Martin as the new deputy superintendent.

Pitre-Martin is currently the department’s chief academic and digital learning officer. But prior to her hiring in 2016, she was superintendent of the Thomasville City School District and DPI’s former director of K-12 curriculum and instruction.

“I would encourage members to vote ‘no’ on this based on the process and not on the person,” Johnson said shortly before the board’s vote on Pitre-Martin. Board member Amy White was the only member to heed Johnson’s request.

Thursday’s vote comes in the midst of much behind-the-scenes consternation over the responsibilities and powers of Johnson’s office.

Republican lawmakers voted in December to assign greater hiring and oversight duties to Johnson weeks after he stunned longtime Democratic Superintendent June Atkinson in the November election, but the State Board of Education filed suit days later, claiming the legislature’s actions were “unconstitutional.”

The controversy stems over varying interpretations of the N.C. constitution, which orders the state board to “supervise and administer the free public school system and the educational funds provided for its support.” The superintendent’s role, defined in the constitution as the “secretary and chief administrative officer” of the board, is more nebulous.

However, the Republican-controlled legislature isn’t waiting until that lawsuit’s completion before intervening on behalf of the new GOP superintendent. The state House passed legislation last month granting Johnson the power to create up to five full-time staff positions that report directly to him and not to the state board.

State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey

That proposal, House Bill 838, is currently awaiting action in the Senate’s Rules and Operations Committee. It is expected to pass despite the opposition of Republican State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey, who criticized lawmakers for the proposal because it would cut eight currently vacant positions in DPI.

Board members offered little comment on their unanimous vote Thursday to allow Johnson power over the chief of staff position, and it’s unclear whether the action will have any impact on the pending lawsuit or House Bill 838.

“I thank the board for allowing me to hire my chief of staff,” Johnson said.

Johnson expressed frustration in an April court filing that board members have final say on top DPI staff positions, although the new Republican superintendent has the same powers afforded to his Democratic predecessor when she left office.

However, during her roughly 12-years in office, Atkinson also fought with previous state board members over the superintendent’s powers. Lawmakers have expressed a desire to settle the debate in the coming years, although all sides are awaiting the results of this summer’s court case.

Of the positions previously open for the superintendent to hire, Johnson hired Chloe Gossage as a legislative liaison and chief budget advisor, Kevin Wilkinson as a policy advisor and Lindsay Wakeley as senior policy advisor and chief legal counsel.

Gossage and Wakeley are ex-staffers of former N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory, while Wilkinson worked in the office of former Republican state Rep. Rob Bryan, who, earlier this month, was selected by the state House to join the UNC Board of Governors following his defeat in November’s election.

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