Partisan politics snarls routine education appointments

By: - June 12, 2012 1:23 pm

Lost among last year’s budget battles in the state legislature was a routine resolution to approve three seats on the N.C. Board of Education.

More than a year has passed with no move to address the three terms that expired on March 31, 2011. The inaction will translate into a political boon for the next governor of North Carolina.

The Republican leader in the Senate, state Sen. Phil Berger, said this week he doesn’t plan on pushing forward any appointments sought by Gov. Bev Perdue, given that the Democratic governor will only be on the job a few more months.

“Gov. Perdue is a lame duck,” Berger said. “We would prefer to have whoever the new governor is filling long-term appointments on various state boards and commissions.”

In addition to the three state board seats, the legislature is also sitting on a Perdue appointment for the state Utilities Commission.

By snubbing Perdue’s appointments, the legislature is setting up a scenario where the next governor — Republican Pat McCrory or Democrat Walter Dalton– will get those three state education board appointments to fill as well as an additional three more in March 2013.

That will leave the new governor with six appointments on the 13-member board and more sway than a governor typically has over the entity that sets kindergarten through high school education policy in the state.

But ignoring the appointments for more than a year runs counter to what the state Constitution intends and how the state should be run, said Phil Kirk, a past chair of the State Board of Education who also served as chief of staff for former Republican Govs. Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin.

Kirk said he couldn’t recall the legislature delaying any appointments for the state education board as they have done with Perdue’s appointments.

“The delay is an extension of partisan politics which I don’t agree with,” Kirk said.

Usually, a governor isn’t guaranteed a majority on the state board until half-way through his or her second term.

But under the scenario created by Berger’s delay, the new governor will have that majority by March 2015, half-way through his first term.

Constitutionally created

The State Board of Education is one of the only governing boards to have its responsibilities outlined in the state constitution, commanding that the board “supervise and administer the free public school system and the educational funds provided for its support.”

Two of its members come from statewide elected positions – the state Treasurer and the lieutenant governor. The remaining 11 come from appointments by governors, and the state Constitution calls for those appointments to be confirmed in a joint session of the N.C. General Assembly. The State Superintendent of Education, a statewide elected position currently filled by Democrat June Atkinson, is not a voting member of the board but attends meetings and serves as the board’s secretary.

The State Board of Education was designed to remain a slow agent of change in the two and four-year cycles of legislators and governors. Board members serve eight-year terms on the board that is one of the few boards to have its makeup outlined in the state’s governing document.

The appointments and re-appointments have attracted little attention in past years.

But the past two years in Raleigh have been like few others, with little consensus and lots of heated bickering emerging between the Democratic governor and Republican leaders of the legislature.

In this case, Perdue sent a request in May 2011 to legislative leaders to reaffirm two board members, Education Board Chairman Bill Harrison and Jean Woolard of Plymouth. Perdue also wanted to replace Tom Speed of Boone, who asked to step down because of a busy law practice, with William Woltz Jr, according to Harrison and Perdue spokesman Mark Johnson.

There was already a placeholder resolution, Senate Resolution 92, filed in February 2011 by the heads of Senate education committees to handle the expiring terms. But the resolution was put into a Senate Rules Committee in February of last year and never emerged.

Harrison, Woolard and Speed continue to serve on the State Board of Education, despite their expired terms.

The lack of movement on a simple issue like state board reappointments is just one of the issues the state board is having with the legislature, Harrison said.

Harrison was appointed by Perdue in 2009 to fill the remainder of an eight-year term and needs a reappointment to stay on.

The board, and Harrison, told the state legislature that public education in the state needs more funds, after the legislature put forth a budget that led to more than 900 teacher lay-offs last year. The state could be destined for much of the same this year with no move in the Senate version of the budget to replace expiring federal stimulus money that had gone to pay for thousands of classroom positions.

“There is no more important issue confronting us than the need to strengthen our schools,” Harrison said in a statement released by Perdue’s office. “The legislature’s failure to act on these appointments suggests that education is not the priority that it ought to be.”

Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at [email protected] or (919) 861-1463.

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Sarah Ovaska-Few

Sarah Ovaska-Few, former Investigative Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch for five years, conducted investigations and watchdog reports into issues of statewide importance. Ovaska-Few was also staff writer and reporter for six years with the News & Observer in Raleigh, where she reported on governmental, legal, political and criminal justice issues.