GOP school system laws upheld by State Supreme Court

North Carolina State Legislative Building

RALEIGH — In another challenge to a law enacted by the Republican-led General Assembly, the State Supreme Court has upheld as constitutional the legislature’s move in 2016 to transfer some authority from the State Board of Education to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. The legislation resulted in a conflict of authority between the two.

The effect of the legislation was a transfer of several operational duties, including hiring and firing DPI employees and administering funds, from the State Board to the State Superintendent.

Justices affirmed a lower court ruling which had stated, “those aspects of the legislation appear to fall well within the constitutional authority of the General Assembly to define specifics of the relationship between the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction.” The State Board, represented by former State Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr and others, appealed that decision to the state’s highest court.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson says the ruling validates his authority. However, that interpretation was challenged by  Orr and Drew Erteschik, attorneys for the State Board, who issued a statement saying they were “pleased with Supreme Court’s decision” which they said “reaffirms that the State Board of Education — and not the Superintendent of Public Instruction — has the ultimate authority under the Constitution to supervise and administer the state’s public school system.”

While admitting that the Court did not invalidate the law “on its face” Orr and Erteschik said, “the Court unanimously declared that the Board has the final say on ‘the mechanics of the relationship between the Board and the Superintendent, as well as how their respective departments will operate internally.’”

“It is laughable that they believe there is any victory in the Supreme Court’s decision, which affirmed, unanimously, the ruling of the three-judge panel,” said attorney Phillip Isley, who represented Johnson in the case. “This case showed that the words of the Constitution matter and the 2016 legislation was constitutional.”

Hardy Lewis, Isley’s co-counsel in the case, said in a phone interview that the winner in the case was the state legislature, and did not establish new authority for the State Board.

“The opinion shows that the General Assembly has a lot more authority than the State Board gave them credit for and that was established today,” said Lewis. “The Board’s authority was already well-established in case law and we never contested any of those propositions. The Supreme Court’s opinion made it clear, for the first time, that the Superintendent is the day-to-day operator under the constitution and that authority can’t be infringed on by the State Board.”

In a separate case, the State Board had challenged the oversight of the N.C. Rules Review Commission — a commission set up by the legislature in the mid-1980’s to review administrative rules. In that case, the Court of Appeals sided with the Rules Review Commission, affirming its authority  to review rules and regulations  imposed by the State Board of Education.

In response to the court’s ruling, Orr and Erteschik called the opinion a “clarification.”

“We are particularly pleased that the Court has declared that only the Board’s rules directed ‘toward the activities of parties external to [the public education system]’ need to go through the Commission process, whereas all other rules ‘directed primarily toward the internal governance of the state-level entities responsible for the governance of the public education system,’” they said.