NC DPI’s second-in-command offers pivotal advice, warning about partisan politics as she prepares to retire

By: - February 16, 2017 12:59 pm

It’ll be a matter of weeks, March 1 to be exact, before N.C. Department of Public Instruction Deputy Superintendent Rebecca Garland is expected to leave here for the last time.

Her Raleigh office in DPI headquarters, festooned with N.C. State sports apparel, still seems mostly in place. And Garland, an integral leader in various roles for this state agency for more than two decades, is amicable and reserved when she talks about her pending retirement.

It’s “surreal,” Garland quips, but she’s ready for a break. But Garland tears up when talk turns to “her people,” the hundreds of state workers who staff the agency charged with overseeing public schools in North Carolina’s 115 local school districts.

Her people, she says, are what matters the most to her.  “There are a lot of very dedicated people in this building,” says Garland. “They’re not partisan. They’re just really good at what they do.”

It’s two months into the tenure of Mark Johnson, a Republican attorney and relative unknown in state politics who shocked many political observers when he defeated Superintendent June Atkinson, a Democrat, in November. Since then, Johnson’s been relatively quiet about his plans for change, be it staffing at this key state agency or promised reforms for the state’s public schools.

And while Garland, second-in-command for Atkinson since 2014, has heard no talk of wholesale staff turnover at DPI under Johnson, she’s passionate when asked to give advice to the agency’s new GOP leadership. Most of it, it seems, is centered around staffing and the fear, spoken or unspoken, that heads will roll at DPI under a Republican.

“I can name on one hand the number of people that I know their political persuasion,” she said. “This building has never been partisan.”

On Thursday, Jonathan Felts, a GOP political consultant and spokesman for Johnson who says he heads the new superintendent’s transition team, told Policy Watch Johnson’s staffing plans have been delayed somewhat by a pending lawsuit between the State Board of Education and the General Assembly over the powers of Johnson’s office.

“During the transition, we were told repeatedly by board members and others that a number of personnel were considering retirement options, so Superintendent Johnson was ready to address personnel challenges on day one,” Felts said in a statement Thursday.

“Unfortunately, the decision by (former Gov. Pat) McCrory appointees and others on the State Board of Education to file an expensive lawsuit at taxpayer expense means personnel and other important decisions are delayed by the state board’s system that seems to be made up as we go along.”

Republican leadership in the legislature acted to consolidate greater powers over administrative staff, as well as control of the state’s charter office and contracts, under Johnson in December, a move that members of the state board quickly denounced as unconstitutional.

Now it seems, with the two parties not due in court for months, Johnson and DPI staff are in a “wait and see” mode.

While she’s not taking sides publicly, Garland said she hopes a state court will settle the power issue once and for all between the state superintendent and the state board, noting Atkinson sued former Gov. Bev Perdue and the board over a similar power dispute in 2009.

The case, legal observers agree, will hinge on the court’s interpretation of state Constitution language that orders the board to “supervise and administer the free public school system,” while defining the superintendent as the board’s “secretary and chief administrative officer.”

“I have respect for the office of superintendent and a great deal of respect for the board,” Garland says. “It’s not up to me. Whoever did the Constitution should have been a little more explicit.”

Regardless of how that case turns out, Garland says she hopes the partisan bickering doesn’t come at the expense of DPI staff. Garland describes herself as “totally unaffiliated,” a nonpartisan, career educator whose focus is fixed on the state’s public school children.

Yes, she’s heard the suggestions from some conservative state lawmakers that DPI is a bastion for the left, a political nemesis for North Carolina Republicans whose top office under Atkinson has often clashed openly with Republican lawmakers over topics like teacher pay, K-12 funding and private school vouchers.

None of that, Garland insists, sums up this department.

“Things that were done here were based on what we thought was good for kids. Not on any kind of calculation that, if we do things a certain way, it will benefit certain people. That was never taken into account while I was here, never discussed to tell you the truth.”


When she announced her pending retirement at an emotional State Board of Education meeting this month, board Chairman Bill Cobey told Garland she was “one of those people who has given your life to public education.”

Indeed, Garland’s served a variety of roles in the state’s top K-12 agency, be it consultant, executive director for the state board, chief academic officer and, finally, deputy superintendent under Atkinson in March 2014.

But DPI isn’t the whole story. Garland’s held an active teaching license for 46 years, she boasts, and worked for roughly 23 years in what she calls “the field,” as a teacher and leader in local school districts like the Alamance-Burlington School System.

Through it all, she’s maintained a reputation as an even-tempered centrist, the opposite of a firebrand at a time when politics and public education in North Carolina have been constant, if not uncomfortable, bedfellows.

Despite that partisan tension, Garland insists her retirement was not forced upon her by Johnson’s office. Garland said she planned to retire anyway in 2017, although she acknowledges the declining health of her husband—who passed away just days ago—and Atkinson’s surprising ouster probably hastened her departure by a few months.

“You have to trust somebody to be able to work together,” she says. “I didn’t want to start building that trust (with Johnson) and then betray that trust by leaving him.”

Garland adds that she believes the transition to Johnson has been “fairly smooth,” even though she says it was likely a different learning curve for Atkinson, a career educator and longtime DPI worker, than it is for Johnson. Before running for the statewide office, the Winston-Salem Republican taught for two years at a Charlotte high school with the Teach for America program and, in 2014, won a seat on his local school board.

“There’s a lot to learn,” she says. “That would be the same for anybody going into a business where they have to come in from the outside. It’s like any new CEO. I think, methodically, he is working through how to figure out how things work. I think he’s in a listening mode, a learning mode. Slowly, he’ll start to put his stamp on it.”

Garland compliments Johnson as being “as compassionate and supportive and flexible as he could be” with her husband’s health declining in recent months. Garland adds that she believes she has a good relationship with Johnson.

Felts, meanwhile, praised Garland’s “exceptional abilities and passion for her work.”

“While I’m sure we likely disagree on some things, she cares deeply about public education and I believe North Carolina was fortunate to have her as a public servant for so long,” Felts added.

In Raleigh today, it’s unusual to see compliments passed back and forth between two different administrations, but such is the relationship with Garland, who seemed to shun partisan acrimony in an interview with Policy Watch this week.

Even today, with Democrats and Republicans lambasting each other over the dismal state of teacher pay and per-pupil spending in North Carolina, Garland seems more likely to advocate for solutions than to place blame, although she tells Policy Watch teacher pay should be a “high priority” for Gov. Roy Cooper and the GOP-controlled N.C. General Assembly this year.

“I don’t blame either party,” she says. “We all, both parties, hold some responsibility for the state of teacher pay. The number one responsibility goes to the recession, but I would like to see the current party that is in charge continue to work on teacher pay and get it to where it needs to be.”

For Garland, that means bringing North Carolina close to the national average in teacher pay. That’s more than $58,000. Today, North Carolina’s average teacher pay falls just short of $50,000, ranking somewhere near the bottom of the nation, although Republican leadership in the legislature has promised a budget this year that should hike pay near $55,000.

She says teacher pay will be pivotal if North Carolina is to assuage the state’s growing troubles with recruitment. Last year, state officials warned of a prodigious drop in the number of students seeking teaching degrees in the UNC system, even as droves of teachers reportedly left the state for work in other states or other fields.

And with the growing school choice movement, North Carolina’s traditional public schools have seen students, and with them, cash, drift toward private schools and publicly-funded charters.

Garland admits she doesn’t exactly know how she feels about school choice, although she acknowledges traditional public schools, within the framework of the law, are in an age where they must grow more flexible, be it through magnet programs, altered calendars and more. Parents demand it.

“Realize that you’re not like Burger King,” she quips. “Everybody can’t have it his or her way, but you can certainly have some choice within a system. I think that’s what parents want.”

Charter schools are all well and good, she adds, provided alternative schooling options face the same accountability standards and scrutiny as traditional public schools. Change, she says, will come to schools whether they’re ready or not.

“The whole notion from the 1950s that everybody goes to the same kind of school and sits in the same kind of class, I think that’s yesteryear,” Garland adds.

Furthermore, Garland said she hopes lawmakers and DPI staff will focus their efforts in the coming years on expanding access to pre-K programs, as well as early intervention for reading programs, a pet project of GOP leaders in the legislature in recent years.

And while she notes wildly varying ideas about addressing these public education goals in North Carolina, Garland says Republicans and Democrats need to find common ground.

Public schools, meanwhile, must focus on the job at hand.

“Traditional public schools just need to be very effective and try to meet the needs of as many students as they can,” Garland said. “And I think we’re doing that.”

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.