Feb. 17, 2010        

Wake schools superintendent resigns

Any clear understanding of what the future holds for Wake County’s public schools was tossed aside Tuesday night when Superintendent Del Burns stunned the new school board by announcing his resignation effective June 30.

Del BurnsBusiness leaders, educators and others have speculated since the fall elections about how long Burns would stay given that the new board majority has shown muted interest at best – and at times open disdain – for some of the issues that are most important to him.

Teacher training programs, socio-economic balance in the schools and efficient operations, for example, have all taken direct hits since the new board members took office Dec. 1. Burns considers all three areas critical to running a quality school system.

In his brief remarks, it was notable that Burns singled out his support for a “strong school system, not just a system of schools.”

It appeared the superintendent and board members were at least trying to work together in the first two months, but it was a lopsided relationship. A majority of the board dictated changes often driven by campaign promises made during an unusually partisan race. Several members also made it clear they didn’t trust the information they were getting in response to their requests.

Still, the board needed Burns and his staff to actually operate the system of 159 schools and 140,000 students. In unusually straightforward terms on Tuesday, Burns told them he wasn’t willing to play that role.

“It is clear to me that I cannot, in all good conscience, continue to serve as superintendent,” he said in prepared remarks. “Therefore, out of respect for the Board, out of respect for its direction and its decisions, I provide to the Chair written notice that effective June 30, 2010, I resign my position.” (See full remarks here.)

The announcement left school board members literally speechless for a moment. Unsure what to do, board Chairman Ron Margiotta broke the uneasy silence by calling for a recess. Margiotta immediately said he would ask Burns to reconsider, but such a move seems highly unlikely.

Instead, several key decisions in the coming months are likely to offer insights into the direction of the system. For example:

  • Will top staff remain? Many of the senior staff members and second-level administrators believe strongly in the same goals as Burns. Many are also old enough to retire. Running a large school system only looks easy when it’s done well. As all new board members quickly discover, countless operational details can quickly turn a good idea into a muddled mess in the schools.
  • How will a new superintendent be selected? It is common when a superintendent leaves for someone to demand a national search. That is likely here, too. The key is to look for the way in which the job is described – do they want an educator, a business person, someone with experience? Is a candidate’s view on socio-economic balance a plus or minus? The already heated debate about the schools will likely be bumped up a notch on this question alone.
  • Who will apply? The lifespan of a superintendent is typically short even when the circumstances are good. That is why most superintendents are loath to take an offer when they aren’t a unanimous choice of the board members. That could be extremely difficult with the current board given its philosophical differences and the way politics have come to dominate much of the discussion. In addition, board members are usually sensitive to how their search is perceived. No one wants to be seen as a school system that superintendents spurn.
  • How will Burns handle his final months on the job?Burns is regarded as a consummate professional in his public dealings with policy makers. Those skills were on display numerous times in the past two months as board members required changes involving school calendars, budget information, the hiring of outside legal counsel and other issues. Out of respect to both school employees and board members, he would politely but persistently insist that board members sign off on the details of what they were requesting. “I want to make sure you are satisfied with how we handle this,” he said on many occasions. No one would expect the superintendent to become defiant in his final months, but he may sway public debate by sharing his opinions more openly.


School board rejects high school site

Saying they had no choice but to “clean up the mess” left by their predecessors, new school board members abandoned construction on the Forest Ridge High School site in eastern Wake County.

The system will instead pursue two nearby parcels of land for a new school, even though the decision is likely to increase overall costs by $10 million to $15 million and delay its opening until 2014.

“This is just the wrong place for a school,” said board member Chris Malone. “It’s more than the money. It’s beyond that now.”

The board’s decision was not a surprise. The new majority had demanded the school system stop spending money on the Forest Ridge site before the new members even took office Dec. 1. The school became a lightning rod for criticism this summer because of roughly $5.7 million in cost overruns.

The controversy led to the creation of a 19-member team of administrators from the state, the county and the cities of Raleigh and Rolesville. The team reviewed 86 possible sites, including one strongly preferred by Rolesville Mayor Frank Eagles.

In the final analysis, the original site was still $1 million to $3 million cheaper to develop, according to the team. In addition, school leaders estimated it would delay the project until 2014 and require about $10 million be spent to install mobile classrooms to handle extra students. Another $5 million will likely be needed to conduct detailed reviews of a new site and absorb expected increases in construction costs.

To help offset those costs, board member Keith Sutton asked that the school system make a formal request of $7 million from all of the surrounding towns that will benefit from the new school and surrounding development.

Suggesting there was no point in even asking, three of the board’s majority members voted against Sutton’s request. Board member Deborah Goldman, however, joined the minority in approving the request.


Kentucky adopts common standards

Kentucky became the first state this week to adopt common academic standards drafted as part of a nationwide push demanding a more rigorous classroom curriculum.

The decision is another boost for the effort being led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. Kentucky decided to adopt the higher standards in English and math even though the final version has yet to be approved. Forty-eight states, including North Carolina, are involved in the initiative.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is part of a national push to improve schools. It is designed to ultimately make U.S. students more competitive internationally.

Higher standards and the ability to better gauge student progress at national and international levels are key pieces in any effort to provide world-class schools. Click here to read a report issued by Wake Education Partnership that describes what world-class schools would look like in Wake County.


Wake principal wins regional honors

John WallJohn Wall, principal at North Garner Middle School, was named one of eight principals who will compete for the 2010 Wachovia North Carolina Principal of the Year award.

Wall has been in education for 22 years and has been principal at North Garner Middle for four years. Prior to that, he was principal and assistant principal at Zebulon Middle and a teacher at Carnage Middle. Earlier he taught in New York.

A selection committee will review each candidate’s accomplishments, visit their campuses and conduct interviews before naming a winner April 1.



... Time Warner Cable and News 14 Carolina are starting a new series that highlights the educational activities and initiatives taking place all across the state to spur interest in the areas of science, technology and math. Click here for the story and video link.

… The first two community meetings meant to gauge the public interest in the use of year-round and traditional school calendars were lightly attended. Three more meetings will be held this month, including one this Thursday in Wake Forest. Click here to pre-register and see more detail. The school board is scheduled to decide in March whether to convert any year-round calendar schools to traditional calendars based on parent and general public input.

… A recent article in the publication Education Week cites several studies that show simply placing students in Algebra classes in the hope they will rise to the challenge is a misguided practice. The alternative of placing them in a low-level math class, however, offers little or no benefit. Algebra holds a special place in the debate about higher standards because students who pass the course by ninth grade have many other higher-level math classes available to them.

Wake Education Partnership is a 501(c)(3) non-profit created in 1983 to support public schools, in part by educating the community on current school issues. Most of its financial support comes from local business. Send comments to Tim Simmons, VP Communications, at  tsimmons@wakeedpartnership.org