Burns departs; rancor lingers

Staff WriterJuly 1, 2010 

  • The Wake County school board's superintendent search committee will meet late this afternoon to discuss setting timelines and identifying the characteristics for the new schools chief.

    Debra Goldman, the board member chairing the committee, said she'd like to hire someone by the end of the year. The board has already given preliminary approval to changes dropping the requirement that the next superintendent be an educator.

    The committee will meet from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at 3600 Wake Forest Road in Raleigh.

— Del Burns' tenure running the Wake County school system may be remembered more for the way it ended than for the four years he served as superintendent of the state's largest school district.

Wednesday marked the last official day on the job for Burns, who announced Feb. 16 that he was resigning because he couldn't in good conscience carry out the policies of the new school board majority. His resignation and subsequent public criticism of the board majority has made him a hero to supporters of the discarded diversity policy and a villain to those who back the move to neighborhood schools.

"His tenure, no matter what else he did, will be forever marred by his complete lack of respect for the voters and the elected officials," said Dallas Woodhouse, state director of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, which supports the board majority.

But Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a group that has criticized the board majority, said Burns has nothing to be ashamed about for the way he departed as superintendent.

"He stood by his convictions to the point of losing his job," Brannon said. "How many other people can say that?"

In a series of media interviews after his resignation announcement, Burns criticized the board majority's plan to end the practice of trying to keep schools' enrollments socioeconomically balanced. Burns, a Democrat, also accused the Republican board majority of engaging in political partisanship.

After his comments, the school board voted 5-4 on March 9 to put Burns on paid administrative leave through June 30. Burns, who did not return calls Wednesday, has spent the last three months getting paid without having anything to do. He cleared out his desk and handed in his cell phone and identification card in March.

In an example of the bitterness about Burns' exit, he wasn't mentioned by board members at their last meeting, June 15. Instead, former board members took Burns out for a celebratory dinner at the Angus Barn in Raleigh.

Donna Hargens, Wake's chief academic officer, has been serving as interim superintendent until a permanent successor is named.

Burns became superintendent in July 2006. It capped the career for an educator who started working in Wake as a teacher in 1976.

The past four years have seen major changes in Wake County.

Voters approved a record $970 million school construction bond issue in 2006. Wake was sued over the use of mandatory year-round school assignments. Although the school district ultimately won the legal fight, dissatisfaction about that policy helped lead to last fall's electoral results.

Also, student test scores remained relatively flat while the economic recession forced the school district to lay off employees, raise class sizes and eliminate some electives.

One of Burns' major initiatives was to hire an outside firm to do an audit of the district's curriculum and management practices. Burns also backed a plan, implemented this school year by the old board, to dismiss students early every Wednesday so that teachers could hold planning sessions. The practice, called "Wacky Wednesdays" by critics, was unpopular with many parents and also helped fuel voter discontent last fall.

The new board majority ended the Wacky Wednesdays for the coming school year and instead told schools to find other times to hold the planning sessions.

"He was well-respected by the teachers and well-respected by the principals," said Allison Backhouse, a leader of Wake CARES, the group that had sued the school district over mandatory year-round schools and backs the new board majority. "But he didn't show as much concern for the parents of Wake County. That was a problem with the school system."

But former school board member Lori Millberg, who helped hire Burns in 2006, said Burns should be recognized for his leadership during a difficult period.

"Del was an exceptional superintendent," Millberg said. "No matter what we were discussing, Del would always say how it would impact education."

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

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