Wake schools chief may be forced out early

A member of the board majority says the schools chief could be punished for 'insubordination.'

Staff WritersFebruary 19, 2010 

  • On Wake's diversity policy:

    "It's far from perfect; I'll be the first one to share that. And it can certainly use some improvement, and that's the goal - to continue to improve."

    On the challenges of high-poverty schools:

    "There are incredible schools [nationally] that are very high poverty and have incredible achievement, very high achievement. But they tend to be the more heroic efforts. They're the exceptions. You don't see a school system that is addressing those needs in that way."

    Why he wants to stay until June30:

    "We have some very challenging things to work through the next few months."

— Departing Superintendent Del Burns could face insubordination charges if he can't work effectively with the Wake County school board majority he is openly criticizing, a key member said Thursday.

Meanwhile, supporters of the majority said Burns should be immediately stripped of his duties and reassigned after a daylong series of interviews in which he attacked the board's policy changes. Burns said Wake schools could become economically segregated if the current diversity policy is scrapped.

Board member John Tedesco, designated by the majority to respond to Burns, said the district's chief of day-to-day operations might not last until June 30, his announced last day.

"If he basically can't perform the duties of his job, it either becomes inadequate job performance or insubordination or something that needs to be dealt with at another level," said Tedesco, one of four Republican-backed members elected last fall. "We hope that doesn't happen. I have great respect for him as a person."

But school board member Keith Sutton said he and other members of the board minority would try to block any punishment.

"That's not going to happen," Sutton said. "Del Burns has served this system with distinction and honor and integrity. To think that we would treat him with any less than that in terms of respect is ridiculous and preposterous."

Two days after delivering a sharply worded surprise resignation, Burns on Thursday gave a more detailed rationale for his initial statement that he could no longer work "in all good conscience" for the school district he has served for nearly 30 years.

Burns' reasoning

Burns, 56, said he is concerned that the board majority's proposed elimination of the diversity policy in favor of neighborhood schools will lead to a sharp divide.

"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 in an interview Thursday with The News & Observer.

He also said that the board's decision to scrap the weekly early class dismissals some parents dubbed "Wacky Wednesdays" will take away needed planning time for teachers.

"I have some other opinions and some other beliefs and to stay on as superintendent and implement policies I'm concerned about is wrong," Burns said. "It's wrong for me."

In an interview with News 14, he said he was not going to be a "pawn in partisan political gamesmanship."

Support him? Oust him?

Opponents of the board's majority used Burns' statements to rally their supporters.

In a blog post, Rob Schofield, director of research and development for N.C. Policy Watch, a liberal advocacy group, wrote that members of the business community need to heed Burns' words and "get to work stopping the insane effort that has been launched by clueless ideologues to burn that system to the ground."

Despite his policy disagreements with the board majority, Burns said he still feels he can carry out his duties running the state's largest school district.

"I have four months to work, and I intend to serve as superintendent in the way I've served the past four years," Burns said. "I will do my job."

Members of the board majority said they expect Burns to carry out their policies even if he disagrees with them.

"He's not a policymaker," board chairman Ron Margiotta said. "That was one of the problems in the past with the administration making policy and not the board."

But the Wake Schools Community Alliance said Burns has shown that he can't be expected to carry out the new board's agenda. Leaders of the parents' group, which spent more than $50,000 in last fall's election campaign, urged that Burns be reassigned and that an acting superintendent take his place.

"It's clear that from his statements at multiple press conferences and media events that his conscience will not allow him to support the board's goal of neighborhood schools," said Joe Ciulla, a leader of the Wake Schools Community Alliance.

The cost of impatience

Under the terms of his $273,000-a-year contract, Burns had to give at least 90 days notice or risk a $30,000 penalty. Burns said he expects to work elsewhere once he leaves Wake but hasn't lined up a new job.

Members of the board majority said it was too soon to say whether they'd waive the 90-day notice to get Burns to leave sooner.

To get rid of him now, they could pay him through June 30 and for any unused annual leave, according to Ann Majestic, the board's attorney.

If Burns stays, members of the board majority know they'll have to work with a superintendent who is not hesitant to tell the public why he's opposed to the elimination of the diversity policy.

Burns said increasing the number of high-poverty schools would require increased spending in those schools on academic programs and higher salaries for teachers and principals. 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.

Tedesco noted that Wake already has schools with high concentrations of low-income and minority students, several of which exceed the system's goal of having no more than 40 percent of students at any school that qualify to receive free or reduced price lunches.

"The current policy has proven ineffective for helping those schools," Tedesco said.

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service