N.C. science and math school in a lurch

The UNC system tries to clarify oversight of the elite public high school in Durham

Staff WriterFebruary 23, 2006 

The N.C. School of Science and Mathematics in Durham was created in 1980 under former Gov. Jim Hunt.

STAFF PHOTO BY HARRY LYNCH

The UNC system is ready to either take the reins of the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics or cut ties entirely.

UNC President Erskine Bowles wants to resolve the rather fuzzy governance structure of the state's elite public high school, which is now affiliated with the UNC system but operates independently.

Bowles asked the school recently to consider becoming a full member of the UNC system, which has 16 university campuses across the state. Or, he told school officials, they can opt out of the system altogether.

Either change would require action by the school's trustees, the UNC Board of Governors and new legislation in the General Assembly. Faculty and administrators at the 25-year-old residential high school in Durham are studying the options.

The possible reorganization comes after internal strife at the school over academic changes by its president, Gerald Boarman. There also has been sharp criticism of top administrators' salaries and Boarman's three-year contract approved by the school's trustees. Boarman's pay is $198,900, according to records in the UNC headquarters.

Some UNC system board members last year questioned Boarman's salary, saying it was out of line compared with those of some university chancellors. But UNC officials said they could do little about it because they have no direct authority over the school, which was created in 1980 under former Gov. Jim Hunt.

Boarman did not return phone calls Wednesday.

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Brad Wilson said there needs to be clearer oversight of the school.

"The public views the university as responsible for the School of Science and Math, but there is a gap in authority," Wilson said. "If the university is going to have the accountability, then the university needs to have sufficient authority to take action, depending on the circumstances."

Wilson added, "There's not a triggering event."

But a possible reorganization is on the fast track. School spokesman Craig Rowe said the trustees could take action in mid-March. He said several committees were examining the feasibility and impact of the change.

And the UNC board has listed "resolve the governance structure" of the school on its legislative priorities for this summer. The UNC board appoints a majority of the school's trustees but beyond that does not have influence over the school business.

Wilson said he and former UNC President Molly Broad discussed the issue last year. The natural time to make a change is now, he said, because a new president has taken office.

School officials say they look at the offer from Bowles as a way to collaborate more with the university and the state on issues important to the future of education in North Carolina.

"It seems like a real opportunity for our missions to merge," said William Cary of Greensboro, vice chairman the school's trustees. "Math and science education is really finally on everyone's radar screen. We feel like we know as much about it as anybody."

Cary said UNC officials have made it clear that the school would set its own curriculum and run its own operations. The school is studying the advantages and disadvantages of closer ties. "There are certain square-peg, round-hole issues," Cary said.

Staff writer Jane Stancill can be reached at 956-2464 or janes@newsobserver.com.

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