RALEIGH — One of the few things the fractured Wake County school board can seem to agree upon is that Donna Hargens is the right person to run the day-to-day operations of the state's largest school district for at least the next several months.
Hargens was the board's unanimous choice last week to become the interim superintendent, formalizing the acting superintendent's position she was appointed to last month when Del Burns was ousted. Hargens, a Wake administrator for more than 20 years, will be in charge during a growing budget crisis and the start of efforts by the new board majority to develop plans for community-based schools.
"She's going to have a tough job," said school board member Kevin Hill, a member of the minority faction. "She's going to be stretched. But I'm confident that she'll provide good leadership."
School board Chairman Ron Margiotta said that though the board considered several internal candidates, Hargens was the only person interviewed. Hargens said that she agreed to take the position to help provide continuity while so many challenges are facing Wake.
"I've been in Wake County schools for more than 20 years," said Hargens, 52. "I wake up every day thinking about what I do and the difference that I can make. Nothing has changed."
Since 2006, Hargens has been Wake's chief academic officer. She has essentially been in charge of coordinating teaching and learning in the 140,000-student district, which is the 18th-largest in the nation.
Hargens will keep her duties as chief academic officer while serving as superintendent. She'll get an increase on her $148,965 annual salary, but details aren't set.
Making do with less
One of the first things Hargens will tackle is the budget for the coming fiscal year. In particular, she'll help guide the board as it cuts $20 million to deal with an expected 3 percent reduction in state funding. This state cut doubles a $20 million budget shortfall that is already leading to more than 70 layoffs and slashes in other services .
The cuts to deal with the reduction in state funding will be presented to a school board committee Wednesday.
Hargens said there won't be any way to spare schools, which have already seen larger class sizes, fewer courses and the loss of some teachers because of last year's budget cuts.
"There will be an impact on the schools with these future reductions," Hargens said. "But we'll try to minimize them."
Hargens will also have to deal with the new board majority's intentions to change the district's socioeconomic diversity policy, an issue that caused Burns to publicly split with the board.
The board passed a resolution last month calling for the end of busing for diversity in favor of sending students to schools in their communities.
Burns, Wake's superintendent since 2006, announced Feb. 16 that he was resigning as of June 30.
In interviews two days later, Burns accused the board majority of engaging in partisanship. He also criticized the board's plan to abandon the use of socioeconomic diversity in favor of neighborhood schools.
Members of the board majority accused Burns of making "totally inappropriate" comments in explaining why they were putting him on paid administrative leave through June 30.
Hargens declined to give her opinion on the changes being advocated by the new board majority. She stressed that it's her job to carry out their policies.
"The board is dealing with complex issues," Hargens said. "Those are governance issues. My focus is on learning and teaching."
'A true professional'
School board vice chairwoman Debra Goldman called Hargens "a true professional," saying she doesn't know what the longtime administrator's views are on the changes.
Hargens' tenure as interim superintendent will last until Burns' permanent successor is appointed and starts work. Members haven't been appointed yet to the board's superintendent search committee, but Goldman has been assigned to look for possible search firms to hire.
Members of the new board majority say they want to conduct a national search, which school board member John Tedesco said could take six months or more. But they said they'd be willing to consider Hargens if she wants the job on a permanent basis. Hargens said she doesn't know yet whether she will apply.
"There's never a question in my mind that she should be there at least as interim," said Margiotta, the board chairman. "Did you notice that I said, 'At least?' "
Staff writer Thomas Goldsmith contributed to this report.
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