Burns could be out Tuesday

Wake schools chief could lose his job next week as the board majority's anger at his criticism grows.

Staff WritersFebruary 20, 2010 

  • The Wake County school board will meet in closed session 5 p.m. Tuesday at Leesville Road High School to discuss Superintendent Del Burns' status.

— Wake County Schools Superintendent Del Burns could be out of a job as soon as Tuesday following his public criticism this week of the new school board majority's agenda.

The board hastily scheduled a special closed-session meeting for Tuesday to discuss whether to remove Burns, who has accused the new majority of engaging in "partisan political gamesmanship." For about $100,000, school board members could approve a payout that would allow them to immediately remove Burns ahead of his announced June 30 resignation date.

"Historically, when have you heard the CEO of a company publicly undermining the authority of his board?" said Debra Goldman, vice chairwoman of the school board. "At this point, you need to look at cutting your losses."

But school board member Kevin Hill, of the board minority, said it would be a mistake to remove Burns so soon. A former teacher and principal, Hill worries what would happen without Burns at the helm of the administration.

"I would hate to lose his direction and guidance with the system before we have the opportunity to bring a new superintendent on board," Hill said Friday. "Even if we were not able to hire a new superintendent by June 30, that would give us time to bring in a well-qualified interim."

There's no deputy superintendent because Burns eliminated the position after he was named superintendent in 2006. Three of his most senior administrators who might be asked to fill in are Chief Area Superintendent Danny Barnes, Chief Academic Officer Donna Hargens and Chief Business Officer David Neter.

Relations fray quickly

The relationship between Burns and the new board majority has rapidly deteriorated since Tuesday, when Burns issued a stinging surprise resignation announcement. He said he could no longer work "in all good conscience" for the school district he has served for nearly 30 years. Soon after the announcement, board chairman Ron Margiotta said he would try to talk Burns out of resigning.

Things worsened Thursday as Burns explained his reasons for resigning in a series of media interviews. He said he disagreed with the direction of the board's new Republican-backed majority, which wants to end the school system's diversity policy in favor of neighborhood schools. Burns said that would lead to a system of rich and poor schools.

Burns, like the members of the board minority, is a registered Democrat. The school board is officially nonpartisan, but both major political parties were heavily involved in last fall's election.

Burns, who did not return calls Friday, said Thursday he thought he could still work effectively with the board over the next four months.

Margiotta declined to comment Friday when asked whether the board majority could still work with Burns. Goldman's response was stronger, accusing Burns of undermining the board's authority with his public comments.

"I'd expected him to be the professional he said he was, but the statements he made yesterday showed he wasn't," said Goldman, one of the new board members, on Friday.

Another of the new majority, John Tedesco, also said Burns crossed the line.

"If he's going to go out kicking and screaming, I'm not going to settle for it," Tedesco said Friday.

A 90-day notice

Under the terms of his $273,000-a-year contract, Burns had to give at least 90 days notice of resignation or risk a $30,000 penalty. Burns, 56, said he expects to work elsewhere once he leaves Wake, but he hasn't lined up a new job.

The board could waive the 90-day period in the hope that Burns will go sooner. But he has said he wants to stay on through June 30 to help deal with issues such as developing the new budget.

"If he said he can't do his job in good conscience, why wait four months?" Tedesco asked.

Board members could force Burns out now by paying him his salary through June 30 and for his unused state personal leave days. He'd be owed about $68,000 in salary and, through the end of this month, will have $35,162 in personal leave pay.

The board also could try to fire him for cause, without a payout, but Goldman warned that that would be messy.

Supporters of the new board majority have been pushing for Burns' immediate removal since his comments Thursday.

'A no-brainer'

"We've talking about the direction for our school system over the next four months," said Joe Ciulla, a leader of the Wake Schools Community Alliance, a parents' group that spent more than $50,000 to help elect the new board members. "In that case, three or four months worth of salary, compared to 140,000 students, it's a no-brainer."

Dallas Woodhouse, state director of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, argues that the people who are supporting Burns' statements would have demanded that the prior board fire a superintendent who publicly opposed the diversity policy.

"The bottom line is he can't stay on, and he won't be superintendent by this time next week," Woodhouse said Friday. "We have elections for a reason. The board sets policy, and he carries it out."

But Yevonne Brannon, a former Wake County commissioner, said it would be "ridiculous" to push Burns out of office before the additional months he's agreed to serve. She is a founder of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, an alliance of individuals, community groups and religious organizations that joined forces this year to support many of the same policies Burns backs.

"Dr. Burns has offered a way to have a smooth transition - he is willing to help them finish out the year," Brannon said. "It seems to me that it's a win-win situation for everybody to keep the school system running from day to day."

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

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