Raleigh, N.C. — A three-judge panel ruled Friday in favor of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson in his power struggle with the State Board of Education over control of North Carolina's public schools.
In a statement Friday, Johnson said he looks forward to, "belatedly, working for more and better change" at the state Department of Public Instruction.
"For too long, the lack of clarity about DPI leadership has fostered a system of non-accountability," Johnson said. "While this system is great for shifting blame and avoiding responsibility, non-accountability at DPI hurts North Carolina students."
The state board filed suit in December after Republican lawmakers passed legislation in a special session that provided Johnson more flexibility in managing the state's education budget, more authority to dismiss senior level employees, control of the Office of Charter Schools and the ability to choose the leader of the new Innovation School District, which oversees some of the lowest-performing schools in the state.
The powers in question have been under the State Board of Education's control, and board members said shifting them to the elected superintendent violated the state constitution and threatened the working relationship between the board and the superintendent.
In their two-page ruling, the judges said the state board "failed to satisfy its burden of proof as to the facial unconstitutionality of any provision of the statute."
The state board plans to hold a conference call next week to discuss the judges' ruling and consider possible next steps, according to Bob Orr, an attorney for the board.
"I think everyone, including the trial court, anticipates or expects that the decision, regardless of which way it had come out, will be appealed in an effort to get some finality on these constitutional questions from the Supreme Court," Orr told WRAL News by phone Friday.
Orr said the board was "certainly disappointed" by the ruling but added that they are "taking some time to reread multiple times and discuss and analyze, trying to figure out exactly what the court said, or their basis for it."
One point of confusion was the judges' statement that "it appears to be the clear intent of the Constitution that the State Board shall have the primary authority to supervise and administer the free public school system and the educational funds provided for the support thereof … "
"We’re trying to parse out what all that means," Orr said.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger commended the judges' ruling Friday.
"Voters elected Superintendent Mark Johnson based on his platform of strengthening our state’s public schools, and I’m pleased the court recognized the constitutionality of the law and that our superintendent should be able to execute the platform voters elected him to do," Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a statement.
Johnson, a Republican, ousted longtime Democratic Superintendent June Atkinson last fall and took office in January.
The fight between Johnson and the board has turned bitter in recent months, with Johnson saying the board "severely limited" his authority and ignored or denied his requests to make staffing changes at DPI.
Lawmakers included about $700,000 in the state budget for Johnson to hire several staffers without the approval of the state board. The budget also provided him with money for his legal expenses while barring the state board from using taxpayer money to fund its lawsuit.
On Friday, Johnson praised the General Assembly for trying to offer "greater transparency to educators and parents across the state seeking to engage with DPI and greater accountability at DPI."
Anticipating an appeal in the case, the judges stayed their ruling for 60 days, meaning the law, which has been blocked since late December by a temporary injunction, remains on hold.