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Published in Print: March 23, 2005, as Disputed N.C. Education Post Still Unfilled

Disputed N.C. Education Post Still Unfilled

Superior Court Upholds Right of Legislature to Decide Disputed Race

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June Atkinson and Bill Fletcher faced off in court again last week as the two continued their battle to claim North Carolina’s top education post more than four months after their disputed election. Ms. Atkinson won a crucial ruling from a state court late last week, but a decision on the winner is expected to meet further legal hurdles.

Ms. Atkinson, a Democrat, is pinning her hopes on the legislature to declare her the state’s rightful superintendent of public instruction. Lawmakers, at her request, voted last month to take contested elections, including this one, into their own hands.

June Atkinson

Mr. Fletcher, a Republican, challenged the new law in court, however, arguing that it was unconstitutional to apply it retroactively to the Nov. 2 election. Wake County Superior Court Judge Henry Hight Jr. ruled last week that the law could stand.

Still unclear, Mr. Fletcher said, is whether the legislature would have to abide by a state supreme court decision last month that invalidated thousands of provisional ballots—a move that could ultimately give him the lead in another recount. It is also not clear which candidate would benefit if another recount is ordered without the 11,000 ballots in question.

‘Political Soap Opera’

Meanwhile, after months without a permanent chief, little appears to be amiss at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. The chairman of the state board of education and an interim chief have been sharing administrative duties.

Regardless of who gets the position, the controversy is expected to renew attempts to change the office to an appointed post.

“Frankly, the lack of a superintendent is having no effect,” said John N. Dornan, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina and a close observer of the situation. “Life is going on, the department is functioning well, and the state board and deputy superintendent are doing just fine.”

Neither candidate shows signs of surrendering the post.

Mr. Fletcher, a 55-year-old Wake County school board member and businessman, vowed to continue the fight, saying the North Carolina Constitution supports his attempts to discount votes that were cast improperly.

“This is a battle about what the [state] constitution says,” Mr. Fletcher said last week. “If this were only about hanging chads and the shenanigans in a particular precinct, I may not have hung in so long.”

Even after the decision last week in favor of Ms. Atkinson, he declared: “It’s not over.”

Ms. Atkinson, 56, who resigned as director of instructional services at the state education department to run for the chief’s office, contends that her opponent is trying to undermine “the will of the people” for his own gain.

“This is like a political soap opera that is having a difficult time coming to the final episode,” she said last week. “If it were not so serious, it would be comical.”

She said Judge Hight’s ruling “puts me a little closer to becoming state superintendent.”

In the days after the election, the superintendent’s race was too close to call. Several weeks and two recounts later, the state board of elections declared Ms. Atkinson the winner by about 8,000 votes out of some 3.3 million cast. Mr. Fletcher challenged that ruling, arguing that some 11,000 provisional ballots that were inadvertently cast outside the voters’ precincts should be voided.

Then, on Dec. 22, the state supreme court blocked Ms. Atkinson from taking office, pending a ruling on Mr. Fletcher’s suit. The court last month agreed that the ballots were invalid and ordered the Wake County Superior Court, in Raleigh, to determine the results of the election. Ms. Atkinson stalled that recount when she brought her case to the Democratic-controlled legislature.

Lawmakers voted largely along party lines to clarify a provision in the state constitution that allows the legislature to intervene when election results for state office are inconclusive. Almost immediately, Ms. Atkinson’s lawyers filed a petition asking the legislature to declare her the winner.

Mr. Fletcher delayed thataction by quickly asking the supreme court to determine whether the legislature had the power to make the law retroactive. He has asked the court to order another vote count, this time without the contested ballots.

Earning Trust

Ironically, the winner of the bitterly contested race will have little decisionmaking power—at least initially.

After Michael E. Ward resigned the post last summer, the state education board formally took back from the superintendent all authority over day-to-day decisions. But the board has indicated it is willing to assign important duties to the new superintendent once he or she has learned the ropes and shown leadership ability.

“Whoever is appointed will need to earn the board’s trust,” said state board Chairman Howard Lee. “We will not immediately or automatically extend board power to [either] of the candidates. But I'm confident that, over time, that person will be given extended powers and responsibilities.”

Observers say the well-regarded work of interim state chief Patricia Willoughby and the board’s strong role in managing the education department have helped smooth the transition. Ms. Willoughby, a college professor and state board member, was named to the post in September.

Still, state officials anticipate that the delayed orientation of the next superintendent will present some challenges.

“By this time, the department would normally have gotten adjusted to the new person,” Mr. Lee said. Staff members “will now experience some delay with getting up to speed with that person,” he said, “plus the new superintendent will be somewhat below the curve and will have to catch up.”

PHOTO: June Atkinson, the Democratic candidate for North Carolina superintendent of education, listens to a State Board of Elections meeting on the race on Nov. 30.
—File photo by Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer
PHOTO: Bill Fletcher, the Republican candidate for schools chief, right, talks with his lawyer, Bob Hunter, before the start of a State Board of Elections meeting on Feb. 4 in Raleigh, N.C.
—File photo by Chris Seward/ The News & Observer

Vol. 24, Issue 28, Pages 18,20

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