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Despite concessions, no end in sight to dispute between DPI Superintendent, State Board of Education

State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey

Despite a State Board of Education vote Thursday that turned over control of a key leadership position in the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to Superintendent Mark Johnson, there’s no sign this week that the board’s chilly relationship with the new superintendent has turned a corner.

“It’s part of considering the overall relationship with the superintendent,” state board Chairman Bill Cobey tells Policy Watch. “We don’t want to say ‘no’ to everything. We try to say ‘yes.’ He was very appreciative that we changed that.”

Nevertheless, Cobey said he knows of no plans for a settlement in the state board’s pending court battle with Johnson and the N.C. General Assembly, which voted in December to shuttle broad budgetary and hiring powers to the new Republican superintendent after he stunned Atkinson in November’s election.

State board members accused the legislature of acting unconstitutionally in doing so, noting that the N.C. Constitution declares the state board should “supervise and administer the free public school system” while the superintendent acts as the board’s “secretary and chief administrative officer.”

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

Meanwhile, Johnson slammed board members in an April court filing, complaining his office’s push for K-12 reforms has been “severely limited” by the state board, which is also controlled by Republicans.

Cobey said Friday that he doesn’t know if the board’s actions this week will impact a pending bill filed in the state legislature that would allow Johnson to create up to five new jobs reporting solely to him. Cobey is publicly opposing that proposal.

“It’d be nice if they would back off on that, but the legislature can do what what they think is right,” said Cobey. “I just happen to disagree with them. It’s not the first time.”

Cobey argues lawmakers are pushing out necessary positions in the department to create the new jobs for Johnson’s office.

“I view it as they’re just trying to be helpful to the superintendent,” he added. “But I don’t think he needs that help. He has a big agency and they’re all willing to help him.”

In addition to jettisoning control of DPI’s chief of staff position to Johnson, board members also voted over Johnson’s objections to name current DPI administrator Maria Pitre-Martin as the department’s new deputy superintendent.

Cobey says Johnson’s dispute arose over including the state board’s various committee chairs in the interview process for the new deputy superintendent. Previously, that role has been left to the superintendent and two board members, although Cobey defended that change Friday.

“The deputy superintendent is is involved in all the administration and policy areas that impact the areas that they are involved with,” said Cobey. “Frankly, I didn’t know that was an issue and I think it worked quite well.”

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