Atkinson vs. Perdue: Voters need not apply

by Jim Longworth

Back in November, over 2 million North Carolinians voted for June Atkinson to return as state superintendant of public instruction, and we did so in good faith. We were pleased with the job she had done to date, and looked for her to improve upon that performance in a second term. But a funny thing happened on the way to the office. Atkinson was ambushed by rookie Gov. Bev Perdue who is seeking to strip the superintendent’s powers.

I must confess that in my 30-plus years as a journalist, this is one of the most bizarre political conflicts I have ever witnessed. Both Perdue and Atkinson are Democrats. Both were victorious in their election bids. Neither is a personal or political threat to the other, and both are strong advocates for education. Moreover, it is ironic that our first female governor is trying to usurp the power of our first female superintendent. Where’s the sisterhood in that? Is Perdue trying to pull the ladder up behind her after working so hard to climb it? Here’s how the melee began: Earlier this month, Gov. Perdue appointed Bill Harrison as chairman of the State Board of Education. She then asked that board to make Harrison the chief executive officer of the Department of Public Instruction. No doubt Harrison is qualified — he is superintendant of Cumberland County Schools and a well respected educator — but that’s not the point. In giving Harrison full authority over the department, Perdue wants to reduce Atkinson to nothing more than a figurehead. Disputing that, the governor says that Atkinson will serve as an ambassador to education. But the governor’s plan is flawed for two reasons: First, Atkinson is already the state’s ambassador of education. And second, the governor cannot unilaterally decide to redefine the job responsibilities of an elected official. Constitutionally speaking, the State Board of Education can vote to let Harrison take control of the daily operations of DPI, but why would they want to? Would it be just to please a governor who can remove them if they refuse to go along? If so, that means Perdue would have orchestrated this power grab for political purposes, and has defrauded voters in the process. Meanwhile, Atkinson, normally a getalong, go-along public servant, is not taking this usurpation lying down. On Feb. 3 she made the following statement: “Every state superintendent since 1995 has coped with the confusion caused by the current governance structure. It seems logical that an elected official would be able to select, organize and run his or her own state agency. You can rest assured that the over two million voters who voted for me think I have the authority to run the department. To think otherwise would discount the voter.” That same day, Atkinson called on state lawmakers to introduce a constitutional amendment that would make clear who runs DPI. Such an amendment would have to be ratified by a vote of the people. But Atkinson won re-election with 56 percent of the vote, so it’s not likely that those supporters would turn on her, and toss her out of power right after they voted her in. The only way Perdue could change that dynamic is if she had Andy Griffith do another TV ad for her. It might go something like this: “Hi, I’m Andy Griffith. I hate where I grew up and I never come back home to visit, but I love to do commercials about who should run the state. Anyway, I want you to vote yes for an amendment to give Bev Perdue full authority over our schools. Otherwise,you folks will have tokeep voting for a superintendent, and you’re way too busy to do that,what with having to look for work and all. Just let Bev hand-pick whoshe wants, and everything will be okay. I appreciate it”.

Advertisementor not, if an amendment passes that does strip the superintendent’spower, it should not be retroactive. The new law should take effectonly after Atkinson serves out her current term. That will allow her tocomplete the work we elected her to do, before she has to turn over thekeys to her office to Bully Bev.

And if Perdue gets her way, perhaps we should just give her carte blanche witheverything. Let’s let Bev appoint sheriffs, judges and mayors too. Likethe commercial says, we have better things to do than vote. Thegovernor is just trying to save me time, and, like Andy says, Iappreciate it.