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Tensions brewing as State Board of Education, Superintendent Mark Johnson clash again over DPI budget cuts

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

Tensions between the State Board of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson boiled over again Thursday, moments after Johnson explained plans to follow through on a 2018 audit of the state’s top public school agency.

“I think what the General Assembly is looking for is accountability, accountability for the money that is sent to this department,” Johnson told members of the state’s top K-12 board.

Some board members countered by again urging the superintendent to plead the Department of Public Instruction’s case to the legislature, which has slashed funding for DPI by more than $22 million since 2009.

“I want to know what you think,” said board member Eric Davis of Charlotte. “I want to know how much further cuts this department can stand and continue to serve the citizens of North Carolina.”

As noted by Policy Watch this week, Johnson is prepping for the audit, which was ordered by state lawmakers during budget negotiations this year. A report on the audit’s findings is due to the legislature by May 1.

It comes amid lingering friction between state public school officials, including members of the State Board of Education, and the Republican-controlled General Assembly over funding for the K-12 agency.

Johnson, a Republican elected last November, has yet to select a vendor for the financial review. This year’s K-12 budget ordered an independent consultant to seek out inefficiencies, “unnecessary” positions and “ineffective” programs. The plan also bundled in expected savings of $1 million next year, although Johnson indicated Thursday those cuts are not set in stone.

“Through the audit, we will show that we are working to be accountable,” said Johnson.

The superintendent again cited his claim that the department bungled $15 million in elementary literacy funding under former Superintendent June Atkinson, although Policy Watch reported Wednesday that Atkinson slammed Johnson’s claims as “misleading.”

Meanwhile, Johnson and board members continued their quarrel over leadership in the department, which is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit between the superintendent, the legislature and the board.

Davis bristled at Johnson’s talk of separate staffs for DPI and the superintendent’s office. Lawmakers authorized Johnson to spend up to $700,000 to hire positions that report directly to him and not to the board.

Davis also called on Johnson to review the budget and make recommendations about cost-savings, prompting a sharp response from the superintendent.

“One of my complaints is this board wants all of the authority and none of the responsibility,” he said. “Do your work,” replied Davis. “Bring to us a recommendation and we’ll do our work.”

Board members aren’t currently scheduled to meet again until January.

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