News: CJ Exclusives

Bad blood: The sometimes rocky relationship between the N.C. State Board of Education and Superintendent Mark Johnson

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, pictured here in his office. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, pictured here in his office. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

When the State Board of Education added an audit report during a meeting April 30, state Superintendent Mark Johnson called the decision petty. 

The audit found the Department of Public Instruction failed to effectively monitor some Title I spending, failed to communicate timely results of money monitoring from local school districts and charter schools, and improperly charged $18.3 million through a federal special education grant program, which may have to be repaid. Those were just a few oversight failures mentioned in the report. 

In DPI’s response to the audit, the department agreed with the findings and indicated it was working to resolve the problems. 

“These are serious matters,” said Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.  

“Even something seemingly innocuous, such as miscalculating per-pupil expenditures figures, could affect the distribution of federal education funds to the state.” 

The State Board of Education approved a response to the audit during its April 30 meeting. Members said they were disappointed in the findings and pointed to concerns over vacancies at DPI. The matter was added to the agenda under new business. 

The move to add the audit to the agenda a day after the public release of the report was “petty,” Johnson said, especially since DPI was working on the auditor’s findings. 

Johnson has a tense history with the board. 

Shortly after he was elected in 2016, the General Assembly passed House Bill 17 during a 2016 special legislative session, granting the state superintendent more power. The bill transferred authority from the state board to Johnson, including management of the state’s $10 billion education budget and hundreds of contracts, and oversight of senior staffing decisions.                

The state board argued H.B. 17 violated the N.C. Constitution and took the issue to court. The N.C. Supreme Court upheld the law in a 6-0 ruling.

“It’s worked well when the superintendent and the board work as a team,” SBE Chair Eric Davis told WUNC in February. “Unfortunately, the last three years, I feel that the state board and the superintendent have been pitted against each other.”

Davis failed to respond to an emailed request for comment. Johnson declined to comment on his current relationship with the board. 

Johnson and the board have continued jabbing at one another.  

The Jan. 8 Board of Education meeting featured a tense discussion between the board and Johnson over an emergency Istation contract and over how the board interpreted Read to Achieve policies. 

In a memo, Johnson said, state bureaucrats ignored Read to Achieve directives and allowed about 70,000 third-graders to move on to the fourth grade without meeting the program’s standards.

While Johnson, who phoned into the meeting, wanted to cover the background over Read to Achieve’s social promotion policy, some board members were eager to get to the point. A few visibly grimaced as Johnson spoke. 

Board member J.B. Buxton tried to speed the meeting along, but Johnson insisted on explaining the history of the issue. 

Things again got tense when the board asked questions about Johnson’s emergency purchase of a contract with Istation, a vendor to provide a reading diagnostic tool. Board members asked why they hadn’t seen the emergency contract before the state superintendent signed it. Johnson said it was in his authority to sign off on the purchase without input from the board.

In subsequent meetings, the board implemented new rules on limiting the state superintendent’s ability to sign off on contracts of more than $500,000 without consulting the board.

Johnson isn’t alone in occasionally fighting with the state education board, Stoops said. 

“North Carolina’s disheveled system of education governance led to conflicts between the State Board of Education and the last two elected superintendents of public instruction,” Stoops said. 

During her tenure, former State Superintendent June Atkinson, a Democrat, sued former Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue and the State Board of Education over a power dispute. Atkinson won her case in court.

The relationship between the Board of Education and Johnson has had its rough patches, but some conflict is healthy, Stoops said. 

“Without a doubt, some disputes were more productive than others. But I would prefer an independent-minded state superintendent to one that walks in lockstep with the board,” Stoops said. “Deliberation and debate are far superior to groupthink.”

Johnson isn’t seeking re-election. Instead of running for a second term, Johnson set his sights on lieutenant governor, but he lost the Republican primary to Mark Robinson. 

In November, Democratic candidate Jen Mangrum and Republican candidate Catherine Truitt will face off for the superintendent’s job. The two candidates have pledged to establish a more congenial relationship with state board members, Stoops said. 

“We’ll likely see a much different dynamic next year,” Stoops said.