Departing Wake schools leader explains his decision

Staff writerFebruary 18, 2010 

WSCHOOLS01.NE.020210.CCS

Wake school board chairman Ron Margiotta and Superintendent Del Burns listen during a Committee of the Whole meeting at the Wake County schools administration building on Tuesday.

CHRIS SEWARD — CHRIS SEWARD - cseward@newsobser

Wake County Schools Superintendent Del Burns explained today that he’s resigning his position because he’s not comfortable carrying out the sweeping changes proposed by the new school board majority.

Burns had surprised school board members on Tuesday by announcing that he’s resigning effective June 30 because he could no longer in “good conscience” stay on as superintendent. He elaborated on his reasons today, citing the new board majority’s elimination of weekly Wednesday early dismissals and proposed elimination of the diversity policy.

“Once they [school board] set a direction, then it’s very important for the direction to be embraced, for folks to be passionate about it,” Burns said in an interview today with The News & Observer. “I have some other opinions and some other beliefs and to stay on as superintendent and implement policies I’m concerned about is wrong. It’s wrong for me.”

Last fall, four new Republican-backed school board members were swept into office campaigning on a platform that called for ending the diversity policy, mandatory year-round schools and the Wednesday early dismissals. They also campaigned on implementing neighborhood schools.

The four new members joined veteran board member Ron Margiotta in December to form a new ruling coalition on the nine-member board.

Burns said he hadn’t resigned earlier because he didn’t want to presume what they’d do. He noted how in the past how what new board members campaigned on isn’t necessarily what they implement when they take office.

But Burns said it soon became apparent to him that the new majority was going ahead with changes he wasn’t comfortable implementing as the chief administrator of the state’s largest school district.

The new board members are developing plans to change the way student are assigned so that more children would attend schools closer to where they live. Burns acknowledged that the current assignment system can be improved, but he said he’s worried about what could be implemented in its place.

“If you were to abandon [the diversity policy] and have students going to their closest school, and I don’t know what that means, one of the concerns that I would have would be would you then be developing a system of rich schools and poor schools?” Burns said.

Burns said increasing the number of high-poverty schools would require significantly increasing the amount of money spent in those schools. But he questioned the ability to sustain academic progress at high-poverty schools, saying that the examples cited by critics of the diversity policy are the exception..

Burns said he was also unhappy that the board had dropped the weekly early dismissals that allowed teachers to hold one-hour planning sessions to focus on how to improve student achievement. Some parents have called the early dismissals “wacky Wednesdays.”

Burns had pushed for the creation of the additional planning time for teachers as one of his signature programs. But it was one of the first efforts eliminated by the new board majority after they took office.

Board members have said they’ll try to find the one-hour planning time within the school day but supporters of the change have questioned how that will be possible.

Despite the public airing of his differences, Burns said he feels he can still effectively work with board members over the next four months.

Members of the new school board majority said they’re disappointed in Burns’ statements but said they expect him to carry out his duties.

“He’s obligated to carry out our policies,” said school board chairman Ron Margiotta in an interview today. “He’s not a policy maker. That was one of the problems in the past with the administration making policy and not the board.”

Under Burns’ contract, he’s required to give 90 days notice before he can leave or else pay a $30,000 penalty.

Burns said he hasn’t lined up what he’ll do after he leaves the district. But he said he’s not retiring and expects to be working somewhere else.

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