News: CJ Exclusives

Court to hear Board of Education motion to extend stay in lawsuit against superintendent

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)

Judges on Thursday will hear a N.C. State Board of Education motion to extend a stay in the lawsuit between the board and Superintendent Mark Johnson.

The board filed a motion Sept. 5 to maintain the status quo while the case is under appeal. A few days later, Johnson filed a motion in opposition. The court will decide later this week whether to grant an extended stay.

The issue began last year after the General Assembly passed House Bill 17, shifting some power away from the education board and giving it to Johnson. With H.B. 17, the state superintendent would have more oversight in hiring senior staff and direct management over the public school system.

In response to the shift, the education board filed a lawsuit challenging the law’s constitutionality. Since then a three-judge Superior court panel ruled in favor of Johnson, arguing the board failed to provide sufficient evidence showing H.B. 17 violated the state constitution.

The court placed a 60-day stay on the ruling in anticipation of appeals, which expired Sept.12.

“Without a temporary stay pending appeal, however, Session Law 2016-126 will move the entire $10 billion public school system under the control of a single individual for the first time in North Carolina history,” the board’s motion argues. “This seismic shift will generate enormous disruption for our State’s public schools.”

The motion warns that Johnson could unilaterally fire thousands of employees, including some high-ranking officials, and interfere with hundreds of contracts costing millions.

“If the appellate courts reach a different conclusion and this Court’s decision is not temporarily stayed during the pendency of appeal, the appellate courts will be left with the challenges of having to ‘unring the bell,’” the board’s motion explains.

Johnson counters the board’s prediction of a “seismic shift” in his motion of opposition, and argues H.B. 17 “does not fundamentally alter the day-to-day administration of our public schools in North Carolina.”

Johnson called the board’s claim that he would fire thousands of employees “hysterical” and that it “unnecessarily strikes fear into the staff of the department.”

Under General Statutes, most DPI employees can’t be fired without just cause, with only a few exempt from the law, which Johnson argues in his motion. Furthermore, Johnson points out how current law already allows the superintendent to “sign and manage contracts on behalf of DPI.”

Johnson also questions the board’s desire to maintain the status quo after Stacey Wilson-Norman was hired as chief academic officer for DPI five days before the original stay expired. The state superintendent had openly objected to filling the position, arguing H.B. 17 gives him the authority to hire for the position.

The motion to extend the stay will be heard Thursday morning at the Wake County Courthouse.