The North Carolina Supreme Court on Wednesday blocked the winner of the state school superintendent race from taking office while the judges examine whether some provisional ballots should have been counted.

Democrat June Atkinson (search) leads Republican Bill Fletcher (search) by 8,535 votes and would have taken office Jan. 15; the court will hear arguments Jan. 18.

Fletcher argues that provisional ballots cast in the wrong precincts on Election Day — involving as many as 10,000 votes, his lawyer estimates — should not have been counted.

The State Board of Elections rejected Fletcher's arguments last month and certified Atkinson as the winner.

Fletcher sued and filed appeals seeking a hearing before the results were certified.

"This is what we thought needed to be done from the beginning," said Michael Crowell, Fletcher's attorney. "The Supreme Court needed to address this before we know for sure the results of the 2004 election."

Atkinson said she was disappointed. "I guess I will just continue to wait and see" what the court decides, she said.

Patricia Willoughby, appointed this fall to fill out the remainder of the term of outgoing superintendent Mike Ward, will remain at the post until a new schools chief is chosen.

Even if the justices ultimately side with Fletcher, it's unclear whether removing the out-of-precinct ballots from the count would change the outcome, Crowell said.

"We don't know what effect it will have on the election," he said.

The ruling also could affect the outstanding race for state agriculture commissioner.

Republican Steve Troxler (search) leads Democratic incumbent Britt Cobb (search) by 2,287 votes in that race.

The state elections board is also trying to decide how to handle a malfunction in an electronic voting machine that caused 4,438 ballots to be lost, enough to possibly change the outcome of the agriculture contest. A judge last week rejected a proposed Jan. 11 special election.