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2 Vie for Stripped-Down Schools Post in N.C.

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Both candidates for state superintendent of public instruction in North Carolina feel that the post can be an effective bully pulpit on education issues.

If that doesn't work out, then the job may mean doing nothing at all.

Former teacher and school administrator Mike Ward and former college professor Vernon Robinson move toward the Nov. 5 election seeking a position that was drastically overhauled and stripped of its authority by state lawmakers and the state school board less than two years ago.

With the change in the state education agency's structure and the state superintendent's minimal new job description, some people are wondering why anyone is running for the job, even with its $91,000 annual salary.

Before lawmakers handed control over the schools to the state board of education, leadership of schools in North Carolina overlapped, leaving the governor, the legislature, the state board, and the superintendent to fight over territory and education policy.

Because the superintendent's position was created by the state constitution, the legislature would have to pass a constitutional amendment and submit it to the voters to formally abolish the job.

With its newfound power, the state board appointed Richard Thompson, who has the title of deputy superintendent, to preside over the department of public instruction and serve as the chief state school officer. ("N.C. Poised To Slash Size, Power of State Education Agency," March 8, 1995.)

The candidates for the superintendency, however, are not focusing on what they might have already lost. Instead, they are trying to convince voters of what is left that they can do.

"I'm focused on ensuring that the department of public instruction helps to lead the way to find promising programs to help schools with fiscal accountability and strong student performance," said Mr. Ward, the Democratic candidate and the executive director of the North Carolina Standards Board for Public School Administration.

Republican candidate Vernon Robinson, a former professor at Winston-Salem College, feels that the formal authority of the superintendent's position is irrelevant.

After an unsuccessful run for the job in 1992, Mr. Robinson formed the North Carolina Education Reform Foundation, which started to market ideas such as charter schools. He is now its executive director.

"As superintendent, I think it would be healthy to worry whether or not we are meeting the needs of the customer and to focus the system on what individual parents want for their children," Mr. Robinson said.

Still Relevant

While the candidates disagree on issues such as school vouchers--Mr. Ward opposes them, and Mr. Robinson is a vigorous supporter--they agree that the superintendent's position could work well as a platform for drawing attention to school issues.

"The job has changed," said Mr. Robinson, but, he added, "the state board is not immutable."

The burden may actually be heavier on the state superintendent than it was under the old setup, an optimistic Mr. Ward said.

"The new alignment of authority is consistent with what we find with local school districts, with the superintendent playing a very active role in the position," he said.

Local school superintendents, however, generally have strong management and executive powers in addition to an impressive title.

State education officials agree that the office of state superintendent still holds some significance.

"It's a very important race," Edwin Dunlap, the executive director of the North Carolina School Boards Association, said. "Although authority was transferred, the superintendent is still a member of the Council of Chief State School Officers and, in my opinion, plays a part in what is happening across North Carolina."

The new structure has simplified things, said Weaver Rogers, the executive director of the North Carolina state board of education. He added that the board is not likely to completely overlook whomever voters choose. "The state board has always had a working relationship with the office, and I assume that will continue."

Super Tuesday

Voters in five states will go to the polls Nov. 5 to choose candidates for state schools superintendent. This list shows the candidates and the party affiliations in states where the post is a partisan position:

Indiana:Ann England, principal, (D) vs. Suellen Reed, superintendent of public instruction (R)*.

Montana: Wayne Buchanan, state school board executive secretary (R) vs. Nancy Keenan, superintendent of public instruction (D)*.

North Carolina: Vernon Robinson, president, N.C. Education Reform Foundation (R) vs. Mike Ward, director, N.C. Standards Board for Public School Administration (D).

North Dakota: Ray Holmberg, state senator vs. Wayne G. Sanstead, superintendent of public instruction*.

Washington state: Terry Bergeson, former teacher unions chief vs. Ron Taber, former developer.

* Incumbent

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