RALEIGH — In already turbulent times for Wake County schools, Superintendent Del Burns abruptly resigned Tuesday, declaring that he could no longer "in good conscience" work for the system he has served for decades.
That means the new Wake County school board majority, which has pledged to revamp the district and undo several of Burns' initiatives, faces another major hurdle: finding a new chief of day-to-day operations.
At the start of a school board meeting, Burns, 56, revealed his decision to resign. He had not given members prior notice.
Board member Anne McLaurin said she could understand why Burns would leave, considering how the new board majority wants to reverse many of the policies that he supported. Those measures include a diversity policy that has won Wake schools national recognition, mandatory year-round schools and early class dismissals for teacher planning sessions that some parents dubbed "Wacky Wednesdays."
"He couldn't continue to do what he didn't believe was in the best interests of the school system," said McLaurin, a member of the board minority.
Burns' resignation comes amid superheated school board politics. Tensions rose as the new majority swept into office and wasted little time acting on campaign pledges, shouldering critics aside and placing their stamp on board committees responsible for guiding major policy initiatives.
The five-member majority, which includes four Republican-backed newcomers elected last fall, have pitted themselves against supporters of the old board's long-standing diversity policy. Those supporters include many Democrats and Raleigh's traditional leadership, including the business community, which has staunchly supported the school district and its national reputation for its diversity policy.
Chairman Ron Margiotta said he hoped Burns wasn't leaving because of the board's direction. Margiotta said he'll ask Burns, who assumed the superintendent duties in July 2006 and is under contract through June 2013, to reconsider his resignation.
"I'm surprised to see he's going," Margiotta said. "I thought we had a good relationship."
Burns' abrupt announcement shocked board members, prompting Margiotta to call for a brief recess after Burns ended his short statement. Burns' immediate predecessor, Bill McNeal, started telling board members of his plans to retire in 2006, a week before his public announcement. .
The resignation also prompted swift and sometimes passionate reactions from civic leaders.
Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker said Burns' resignation is a signal that the new board majority should slow down. McLaurin, the board member, is Meeker's wife.
"The new school board majority needs to rethink its approach to everything," Meeker said. "The current threat to our school system from the new majority is a major issue for all of us."
But members of the majority said they won't let Burns' resignation deter them.
"He'll certainly be missed," said Chris Malone, one of the new board members. "But we will move ahead with what we wanted to do in the first place."
Advice comes quickly
Although the board's new majority faces the difficult task of finding a new superintendent to take charge of day-to-day operations, Margiotta said it's too soon to talk about the selection process.
But that didn't stop some people attending the meeting from making suggestions. Russell Capps, president of the Wake County Taxpayers Association, a group that supported the four new board members who swept into office last fall, said a businessman should be chosen to replace Burns.
Since the school board majority took office in December, members have enacted major changes that overturned policies Burns was responsible for implementing.
On Tuesday, the board voted to scrap plans to use the Forest Ridge High School site in northeast Raleigh in favor of pursuing two alternative parcels of land in Rolesville, sweeping aside staff warnings that the change would delay opening a much-needed new high school for two years and cost an extra $15.4 million.
The ruling coalition has also started discussing changes to student assignment policy that would eliminate the use of busing for diversity in favor of neighborhood schools. But they face organized opposition from groups trying to block their changes and the threat of legal action by the state NAACP.
No push against Burns
There had been speculation during the campaign that the new board members would fire Burns or buy him out. But Margiotta said there was never any talk by the new majority about forcing Burns to leave.
Burns threw the board members a curve Tuesday.
"To this point I have always considered myself fortunate to be a part of the Wake County Public School System," Burns said as he read from a prepared statement shortly after the start of Tuesday's board meeting.
"With that said, based upon personal and obligatory considerations, it is clear to me that I cannot, in all good conscience, continue to serve as superintendent."
Burns declined to elaborate on his statement.
Speakers praise Burns
Several speakers during Tuesday's public comment period of the board meeting praised Burns. But Margiotta warned people when they spoke about why they felt Burns was resigning, including Susan Evans of Apex.
"I can only imagine how difficult it must be to abide by decisions of the school board that you don't agree with," Evans said, addressing Burns.
Burns has been superintendent since McNeal retired in 2006. Aside from a few years working in the private sector and in the Pitt County school system, Burns has worked in the Wake school system since 1976.
Began as a teacher
He started his Wake school career as a special education teacher. He rose through the ranks serving as an assistant principal, principal and associate superintendent.
Burns was the district's deputy superintendent when he was promoted to superintendent. He gets a salary of $273,000 to run the nation's 18th-largest school district. Wake has nearly 140,000 students.
Staff writers Sarah Ovaska and Ray Martin contributed to this report.
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