Wake school board kicks Burns out of office

Majority refuses to tolerate criticism of its policies

Staff WritersMarch 10, 2010 

  • Del Burns, 56, was named superintendent in February 2006, after predecessor Bill McNeal announced he was retiring.

    Burns had worked in the Wake County school system since 1976, except for a few years working in Pitt County schools and in the private sector. Beginning his career as special education teacher at Root Elementary School, he advanced by working as an assistant principal, principal, associate superintendent and deputy superintendent.

    Burns earned a master's degree in special education from N.C. State in 1977 and a doctorate in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University in Florida in 1992.

— Wake Superintendent Del Burns, who until Tuesday ran one of the nation's highest-profile school systems, will serve out his tenure on administrative leave for making what board members said were "totally inappropriate" public criticisms.

Members announced after a closed meeting Tuesday night that Burns, 56, will remain available for consultation and will be paid until his previously announced resignation date of June 30.

The move leaves the Wake County Public School System, hailed by some and criticized by others for its focus on keeping schools diverse, without a seasoned chief executive. The system faces a fiery community debate over its direction as well as a funding gap of at least $20 million for the next school year.

Donna Hargens, Wake's chief academic officer, will become acting superintendent, said board Chairman Ron Margiotta, who began a brief statement by praising Burns' long service to the system before explaining why Burns was put on leave.

"On Thursday, Feb. 18, Dr. Burns held a series of media interviews where he voiced his opposition to certain recent and proposed policy initiatives by this board," Margiotta said in a prepared statement. "His choice to conduct these interviews was a poor decision and totally inappropriate in the opinion of this body."

The session was the third closed meeting that board members had held on Burns' tenure since Feb. 16, when he abruptly announced his resignation and his intention to remain in the job until June 30. At that time, Burns said he was resigning because he could not in good conscience carry out the directives of the new school board majority.

Two days later, he gave pointed interviews objecting to the majority's plans to make extensive changes in Wake County's diversity-based assignment patterns and other policies including mandatory year-round schools.

Burns, in charge of the 140,000-student system since 2006, said the board was engaging in political partisanship. Another contentious issue was the new board majority's opposition to one of his favored initiatives, the planning time built into teachers' schedules this school year, resulting in early dismissals that opponents criticized as "Wacky Wednesdays."

Following the media interviews Feb. 18, several groups that supported the new board majority had urged that Burns be immediately stripped of his power to run the school system.

In the end, it was quiet

Board members and their attorney, Ann Majestic, who apparently were the lone deliberators, had remained tight-lipped about Burns' fate. Earlier meetings were held Feb. 22 at Leesville Road High School and March 2 at the school headquarters.

The board room, packed during many recent meetings, held only board members, security personnel and reporters Tuesday before the panel retired to another room for discussions. Burns was not present. Efforts to reach him late Tuesday failed.

"I've never seen this room this quiet," member John Tedesco said before the board went into closed session.

During the next few months, the members of the new board majority must conduct the nationwide search they've promised to find Burns' replacement, deal with budget issues and continue fulfilling their campaign promises to reflect the wishes of families in assigning and educating students.

Hargens, who will be acting superintendent until an interim is named, is a longtime Wake County school administrator who has overseen curriculum in Wake since 2005.

During her nearly 20 years of working for Wake County, Hargens has been an assistant superintendent for western Wake and a principal of Green Hope and Cary high schools.

Efforts to reach her Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a community group that backs the diversity policy, called Tuesday's announcement a "sad day for Wake County." Brannon had urged the school board to allow Burns to stay on as superintendent through June 30.

"There's no mistaking the reason why we're losing a great superintendent," Brannon said. "We're losing him because of his disagreement with the decisions they're making and the direction they're heading."

Brannon praised Hargens: "Donna is an outstanding educator."

Claude Pope Jr., chairman of the Wake County Republican Party, said Tuesday's decision was a good one.

"I think it's probably better than outright termination," said Pope, a strong supporter of the new board majority.

Governing boards and administrative leaders need to be in close alignment, Pope said, adding that the Wake school board needs a superintendent who can help it through the difficult process of setting up a new method of assigning students.

"We've all known for some time that Dr. Burns was not that person," he said.

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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