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N.C. Legislators Urge Changes in Governance And Consolidation Into Countywide Districts

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With the 1983 legislative session approaching, a North Carolina legislative study committee has proposed substantial--and controversial--changes in the structure and governance of the state's public-education system.

The proposed reforms grew out of the committee's perception that if the state is to achieve an excellent system of public education during economically difficult times, major structural changes are needed, the committee's co-chairman said.

Two of the most far-reaching of the suggested reforms, which may be modified when they are voted on in final form this week, are:

Making the position of state superintendent of public instruction an appointed, rather than an elected, position. Under the preliminary proposal, the superintendent would be appointed by the state board of education, and would then hire the department's controller, who is now hired by the state board. The controller is the chief financial officer for the department, and reports to the board, not the superintendent.

Limiting state-funded school systems to 100 statewide and no more than one per county. At present, there are 143 districts, 70 of which are county systems. The remaining 30 counties have 73 school systems between them.

Other issues addressed by the committee's preliminary proposals include clarifying state and local responsibilities for funding and providing differential salaries for some teachers.

Policy Statements

The proposals, most of which were presented in the form of policy statements, have engendered considerable controversy. Many education groups totally or partially reject them. The North Carolina Association of School Administrators is taking no position until the proposals are in their final form.

But the select committee on pub-lic education, charged by a bill passed in 1981 with reviewing education governance, structure, and management, argues that although the proposals may seem drastic, the state can no longer afford to allow a structurally inefficient system to handicap public education in North Carolina.

"We can't afford to be inefficient," said Josephus L. Mavretic, a Democratic representive and co-chairman of the legislative committee. ''One of the things we have to look at is whether we're starting with a structure that builds in difficulties. One impression the committee has is that we have a flawed structure and we need to change it."

The system of governance, Mr. Mavretic says, is the committee's chief concern among the issues it uncovered in a review of education studies conducted over the past 20 years.

Under the current system, both the superintendent and the controller answer directly to the state board. The superintendent, who is elected, is responsible for program planning; the controller, who is appointed by the board, is responsible for all fiscal matters, including transportation and textbook purchasing.

"The issue is fairly simple," Mr. Mavretic says. "What we have now is a publicly elected official in the middle of a management organization. We have an appointed board, an elected superintendent, and a controller who is not hired by and does not work for the superintendent.''

The incumbent superintendent, A. Craig Phillips, agrees with the concept of the change, according to Tom I. Davis, special assistant for public information for the state education department. But since one controller was fired recently and the board has a new chairman, Mr. Phillips argues, officials should wait to see whether new personnel ease the problems before making major structural changes.

The education community's reac-tions to this proposal have been mixed. The North Carolina Association of Educators opposes it, arguing that "now is not the time to go making very basic changes" in governance, according to W. Glenn Keever, assistant executive secretary for communications. The state's school boards' association would agree to an appointed board or an appointed superintendent, but believes "somebody needs to be elected," notes Edwin Dunlap, the association's assistant executive director.

However, both interest groups and others agree that the current governance structure is less effective than it might be. "There have been different personalities in those positions. The same problems keep occurring over and over again," said one association official. "The state superintendent, where he is perceived by the public as being totally in charge and accountable, isn't."

Local Choice Favored

Most education groups, as well as Mr. Phillips, oppose the notion of a state mandate for school-district consolidation; they favor instead making consolidation a local choice.

The issue of school-district consolidation, although highly controversial and more divisive than the governance plan, is a less critical part of the committee's proposals, Mr. Mavretic said. He said that the committee proposed the measure not because it would save money--the experience of other districts suggests that sometimes it does and sometimes it does not--but because committee members believe it will improve education.

The state superintendent, Mr. Davis, said, that consolidations are "beneficial, and better education can be achieved with a school system within the county, but only if the local people want it done."

"His thinking," the aide added, "is that if it's mandated by the state, it's doomed to failure. We encourage consolidations, if they want it done."

Correspondent Raymond Lowery in Raleigh contributed to this report.

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