Henry Pankey

On paper, Henry Pankey's candidacy for state superintendent of schools looks like a joke.

His hand-written announcement arrived in the mail with one of the two stamps affixed to it sideways. It touted as one of his qualifications a children’s book he wrote titled “The Eagle Who Thought He Was a Hip-Hop Funky Chicken.” And an enclosed photo looked like something that might accompany a golden anniversary announcement.

There’s nothing wrong with that; anybody who can afford the $1,200 filing fee can run. It’s just that you might expect something a little more, well, professional from a candidate for a Council of State position.

Still, since Pankey went to all the trouble to assemble the information, it couldn’t hurt to look through it. And, as it turns out, his candidacy — quixotic though it may be — might be more than it first appears.

Mission leader

For openers, Pankey’s qualifications run much deeper than author of a self-published kids’ book with a goofy title. (It’s actually an anti-bullying book.)

Originally from Scotland County, Pankey, 63, attended the UNC School of the Arts on a scholarship and then earned graduate degrees from Stockwell College in England, the University of Maryland and Long Island University.

He began a career in education in 1978 as a substitute teacher in New York City. He moved up in the ranks, became a principal and earned a reputation for being a tough-love, no excuses administrator with a touch for turning around troubled schools.

He moved in 1998 to Durham, where he was named principal of Southern High School. Southern went from “low-performing” to “exemplary” in a year, according to the state, and Pankey was named Durham’s Principal of the Year.

Pankey retired not long after that, wrote a memoir and was then lured in 2005 to Parkland High School, where he was named 2012 Assistant Principal of the Year by the N.C. Association of Educators.

Not too shabby. A career in the classroom spanning more than 30 years in two states might, in fact, be good preparation to lead public schools, right?

“The chief executive needs to be a teacher trainer first and have the background to help them and say, ‘This is what an effective school looks like,’” Pankey said. “I have to be the person who leads that mission.

“I believe I have done that. I have a history of school improvement.”

At Parkland — he retired for good after winning that statewide award — he was known to urge kids to dress for success and tell them that “Rosa Parks didn’t do what she did for guys to wear sagging pants.”

The kids heard what he had to say, too.

“He inspires me to go and do great things,” then-student body president Alex Bohannon told the Journal in 2012. “From the time I came through these doors, he told me that I’m the best.”

Running a campaign

Admirable though it may be, having a positive impact on kids and running a successful, statewide campaign as a professional politician are two wildly different things.

First of all, there’s the matter of the incumbent whom Pankey, a registered Democrat, seeks to replace.

June St. Clair Atkinson hasn’t said whether she will run again, but she has been the superintendent of public instruction for three terms.

It’s difficult to say whether she’s any good at the job, mostly because it’s hard to say exactly what the job entails other than to say that the superintendent is the head of the Department of Public Instruction and oversees the state’s public schools. In this state, since the legislature — and local governments — controls the purse strings, the job is mainly about policy.

Using contemporary definitions of political success — raising money and winning elections, the only two that matter — Atkinson is a skillful politico. According to campaign-finance reports for her two most recent campaigns, she raised — and spent — $364,360 in 2008 and $286,421 in 2012.

Pankey, by contrast, barely has a campaign bank account opened. His plan is to travel the state and speak to anyone who will listen, church and civic groups, and tout a book he plans to release soon outlining his platform.

“I’m going to talk to the people,” he said. “I honestly believe if I can connect with people with enough speaking engagements, I can touch their hearts and win.”

It all sounds good, especially when coupled with his background. But this is America, and as everyone knows, money talks and wins elections — especially in an era when money and speech are one and the same.

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