"I can't remember that." Rep. James Langdon Jr., the five-term Johnston County Republican who co-chairs the House Education Committee, is trying to recall when the three vacant seats on the State Board of Education came open. After all, it's his committee that in the next two to three weeks will begin confirming the board nominations Gov. Pat McCrory made in late January.
Langdon's memory may fail him because these seats, technically speaking, were open in March 2011. Two months later, then-Gov. Bev Perdue nominated incumbents Bill Harrison and Jean Woolard, as well as Mount Airy's William Woltz Jr., for the board, charged with molding K–12 policy in North Carolina.
State leaders, as is customary, were expected to confirm the posts within weeks. Instead, Republican lawmakers, fresh from overwhelming victories in the 2010 elections, did nothing to act on their confirmations, required by the state constitution.
They did nothing for two years, until last month, when the newly inaugurated McCrory instead tapped his own slate of GOP-friendly nominees for the technically nonpartisan board, including former Republican Congressman Bill Cobey and Rebecca Taylor, a Pitt County resident who owns five Sylvan Learning Centers in eastern North Carolina. McCrory's third nominee, Salisbury businessman Greg Alcorn, is a Republican with a background in insurance.
These are the forgotten, little-covered seats in North Carolina's appointment madness, overshadowed by Republicans' sweeping move last week to muscle through a proposal to torch dozens of Democratic appointees in state government. The political frontloading will give McCrory an unprecedented amount of power in shaping education policy in the first years of his term.
"I've never seen anything like that," says Rep. Verla Insko, the longtime Orange County Democrat. "That's brand new to state government."
McCrory won't have to wait long for his second slate of board appointees. Three more seats expire at the end of March, and with the terms on two additional seats ending in 2015, McCrory will appoint a majority on the 13-member panel in the first half of his term.
"It's unacceptable," says Chris Hill, director of the Education and Law Project for the N.C. Justice Center, a Raleigh-based nonprofit advocating for the poor. "It's like, 'We get to do what we want.'"
Since January, Harrison, Woolard and outgoing board member Tom Speed stepped down from their seats—which they have held long since they expired in March 2011—with confirmation for the McCrory nominations all but certain. Their departure—and the entrance of Cobey, Taylor and Alcorn—attracted little attention.
But as public education advocates see it, these abandoned State Board of Education seats first signaled that Republicans were not content to wait their turn to make appointments.
"We have real traditions and best practices in North Carolina," says Rob Schofield, policy director for the left-leaning N.C. Policy Watch. "If we're going to start abandoning these things and throwing them out the window, re-creating the relationships between the executive and legislative branch for short-term political gain, I think that raises real questions about the legitimacy of what's going on down on Jones Street."
Schofield says state Republicans may have violated the state constitution in sitting on Perdue's 2011 appointments.
"They're trying to import this hardball Washington politics," he says. "It's John Boehner politics that they're bringing to North Carolina. The ends justify the means."
Langdon declined to comment on why GOP lawmakers ignored Perdue's nominations. His committee co-chair, Cabarrus County Republican Linda Johnson, did not return INDY Week phone calls. However, state Republican leaders such as N.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger reportedly said in 2012 that lawmakers would not hear appointments from a "lame-duck" governor, even though the governor's appointments came some seven months before Perdue announced she would not run again.
Either way, Hill says the state constitution says nothing about how the appointments of a "lame-duck" governor are heard in the General Assembly.
"There was absolutely no excuse for them not to listen or at least hear or discuss the nominees," Hill says. "They didn't even bother."
The state constitution offers little clarity on the subject. Its passage on the Board of Education mandates that appointments are for overlapping eight-year terms; appointments for expired terms are subject to confirmation by the General Assembly. It does not, however, order a timeline on that process.
But Harrison, who was appointed in 2009 as a replacement to the state board, says the delays may clash with constitutional intent.
"I understand the governor wanting to have his say, but I think the process was designed for an intended purpose," Harrison says.
Schofield agrees. "You want new people to come on, but you want to have institutional memory," he says. "You don't want to have totally new people all at once."
Insko says the new reality on the Board of Education may come as a surprise for many in the state.
"We are a two-party state, almost evenly divided," she says. "I think there are Republicans who voted for Democratic candidates and Democrats who voted for Republican candidates. It's unprecedented and this does not represent the people of our state."
For his part, Harrison—a Perdue appointee with more than a decade of superintendent experience in Orange, Hoke and Cumberland counties—says he would have "sat down with the governor and respected his wishes," if he had been given the chance.
Meanwhile, Harrison says he hopes the state board will "stay the course," continuing its use of federal Race to the Top grants—almost $400 million in funds intended to spur public school innovation—as well as continued improvements into North Carolina's lowest-performing districts.
Harrison adds that North Carolina should focus more on rewarding its top teachers rather than seeking out the bad, a popular target for conservative politicians in recent years.
"There aren't as many as the discourse makes it sound," he says. "The vast majority of them are doing incredible work for us."
Insko says the political moves will ultimately divert the state's top education board from traditional public school models. What's left will be the GOP wish list—private school vouchers and charter schools.
"We are undermining what I think is the great American middle class," Insko says. "It's like we're losing our commitment to universal education for every American."
This article appeared in print with the headline "An ugly precedent."