From the Editor

Drescher: Wake's school board wants to stop the leaks

jdrescher@newsobserver.comAugust 23, 2013 

WSKULS-NE-080613-TEL

The newly appointed Wake County School Superintendent, Dr. Jim Merrill, center is congratulated by his wife Elizabeth Merrill and stepson Barrett Cheek during a Wake County school board meeting at the Wake County Public School System's Central Services building in Cary Tuesday, August 6, 2013.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

Nothing infuriates a controlling politician like a leak of information to a reporter. President John F. Kennedy was so upset by one leak that he assigned his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to trace its source. Salinger did so. He reported back that he had found the source – and it was none other than the president himself.

We’ve sprung a leak here and some members of the Wake school board are not happy about it. But the board would serve students better if it stopped obsessing about the leak and moved on to making schools better.

The board named three finalists for superintendent this spring and brought them here to meet the community on May 28.

The board met privately the next day and voted to extend an offer, without publicly naming the person. It scheduled a public vote for June 4. That day came and went. Days ticked by. It was clear the board couldn’t close the deal.

On June 12, The News & Observer’s T. Keung Hui explained the delay. According to former Wake schools chairman Ron Margiotta, Virginia Beach superintendent Jim Merrill was the board’s choice (in a 5-4 vote) but the hiring had stalled over compensation.

Margiotta’s comments angered some board members, including chairman Keith Sutton. The board members didn’t dispute the accuracy of Margiotta’s comments. But they were upset because they believed a board member must have told Margiotta, who left the board at the end of 2011, about the vote for Merrill.

Punish future leakers

So the board has moved forward in an attempt to punish future leakers. A board member who reveals information discussed confidentially could be reprimanded or asked to resign. Two-thirds of the board would have to agree that an ethics violation had occurred.

Margiotta said he didn’t get his information from board members and that it was “common knowledge” that Merrill was the favorite. He said some board members were overreacting.

But the board voted this week, with three dissents, to endorse the policy.

A final vote will be taken next month. Board members Susan Evans, Deborah Prickett and John Tedesco voted against the measure. “It sets the board up to go after witch hunts with one another,” Tedesco told me.

Tedesco and Margiotta were allies on the board when Republicans had the majority. Tedesco said he didn’t know how Margiotta got the information but said Margiotta, after eight years on the board, knew dozens of school administrators.

Tedesco said Margiotta’s comments in June about the board vote didn’t concern him. He said board members always have been discreet with information that truly needed to be confidential, such as the names of students involved in sensitive matters.

More ridicule

How would the board get to the bottom of the Margiotta case? Would it chain him to his sofa and feed him only crackers and water? Would it beat his former board allies with rubber hoses until they ’fessed up?

In the last few years, the board repeatedly has opened itself up to ridicule – and appears ready to do it again. Going after leakers will be ineffective, time consuming, divisive and distracting.

The board faces huge challenges. The graduation rate in Wake is below the state average. Wake schools have lost momentum. The state’s largest school system needs a board with a relentless, unwavering commitment to educating children. Getting bent out of shape about comments from a former board member shows that this board lacks perspective and focus.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com. On Twitter @john_drescher

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