Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — If Richard Alexander gets his way, he’ll be North Carolina’s next superintendent of public instruction. He’ll also be the last.
That’s because Alexander, a special-education teacher from Monroe, wants to convert the elected post of state schools superintendent into an appointed position, similar to the U.S. secretary of education. The change would be the crowning achievement of Alexander’s mission to significantly trim the size of the Department of Public Instruction.
“I believe after reducing staff that we can do away with the position of superintendent of public instruction, and allow the governor to appoint a secretary of education for a bare bones staff,” said Alexander during a candidate forum March 29 in Raleigh.
Alexander stands alone in supporting the shift. Three of his Republican foes — Ray Martin, John Tedesco, and David Scholl — advocated either the status quo or an expansion of the superintendent’s role at the candidate forum. The issue has emerged as one of the only points of disagreement in the crowded GOP primary May 8.
“It’s critical at this time, at this crossroads in education, that our state superintendent position be strengthened,” said Tedesco, a school board member in Wake County. “It is a critical role in setting the agenda for North Carolina. What we’ve heard from some of my colleagues, who want to do away with the role, I think that’s the opposite way to go. We need a strong superintendent.”
Scholl, a Union County school board member, said that the superintendent should remain an elected office. Martin, a public school teacher in Cary, said that he didn’t anticipate closing of central offices in Raleigh.
“As a matter of fact, I’d like to see some strengthening,” he said.
In a telephone interview, Alexander defended his position, saying that he would begin with an audit of DPI to determine which positions are useless or duplicative.
“There is an awful lot of money going into the department that could be better used at the local level toward education,” Alexander said. “Since education is ultimately the responsibility of our governor, the governor should be able to appoint a secretary of education to a smaller staff.”
Alexander couldn’t achieve that goal alone. Because the state constitution authorizes and defines the position of state schools superintendent, the legislature would have to pass an amendment, requiring a supermajority vote in the House and Senate and ratification by voters.
Right now, the state schools superintendent is an elected position in North Carolina’s nine-member executive governor body, known as the Council of State. The salary, by statute, is $123,198 per year.
Alexander’s call for reform touches a sore spot in education politics. In 2009, current state schools superintendent June Atkinson, a Democrat, filed a lawsuit claiming that Gov. Bev Perdue had diluted the superintendent’s role in DPI and on the State Board of Education illegally. A judge later ruled that Atkinson had the constitutional authority to run the state’s schools.
Asked to comment on the dispute, Alexander said that he agreed with Atkinson.
“What’s the purpose of having an elected superintendent if she doesn’t have a job?” he said. “Until the time that they are able to get rid of it or change [the framework], then the elected superintendent has to be the one who has the authority in that department.”
Alexander said that until lawmakers introduce an amendment changing the superintendent’s role, he would support efforts to make the superintendent chair of the state board. Lawmakers mulled that change last year but couldn’t work out a compromise.
Democrats’ field clear
A fifth Republican, former state representative Mark Crawford, also has filed.
On the Democratic side, the field cleared in late February when state Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, scuttled a primary challenge against Atkinson and instead chose to seek a sixth term in the House. Glazier had criticized Atkinson for not condemning Republicans adequately over budget cuts.
Glazier used widespread retirements among Democrats in the legislature to justify his departure form the race. “My colleagues and I agree: If the current majority is allowed to continue to govern, in two years, we will not recognize our great state,” Glazier said in a statement.
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.