Raleigh, N.C. — More than 30 years ago, Del Burns accepted his first job in the Wake County Public School System as a special-education teacher at Root Elementary School.
What he learned that year, he says, made him decide he wanted to be an educator. He worked his way up to the top, becoming the chief executive of the state's largest school system in 2006.
"I've learned, and I hope that I have contributed to the growth of our system and the work to improve education for all kids," Burns said Thursday. "It's demanding, and yes, it's vocal. That's a good thing. To be a part of that dynamic has been really exciting for me."
So, it came as a shock to many Tuesday afternoon when Burns, citing "personal and obligatory considerations," announced to the Wake County Board of Education his plans to resign June 30.
Educating students, he says, has become more about "partisan political gamesmanship" than what's best for children.
"This should be about the children. It should be nonpartisan. I've not experienced the discussion around political parties in a board election or in the work of the board the way I have in the last few months," Burns said.
The Wake County Republican Party last fall donated to the campaigns of four new board members who ran on a platform that included ending the district's diversity policy of busing students in favor of community-based schools.
"It concerns me that it appears – and I haven't seen things play out yet – as if in some cases political ideology is driving somewhat of the decisions that are being made," he said.
As it stands now, the decade-old policy allows no more than 40 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches at any school. Students are reassigned each year to maintain that level, as well as to fill new schools and relieve overcrowding.
Shifting away from the practice, Burns thinks, could be catastrophic.
"I think the potential is here for a change that will result in segregating rich schools and poor schools in the Wake County Public School System," he said.
"For me to implement those (changes) would be very difficult because I have very strongly held principles and beliefs and, in this case, that's not something I can do, to believe one thing and do another," he added.
School board members deny the influence of politics and say that Burns' concerns are, right now, unwarranted because the board has only recently started looking at the effects of changing the diversity policy.
"I'm perplexed," said Debra Goldman, who represents District 9 in western Wake County and is a member of the new board majority. "I do think it's premature."
District 2 board member John Tedesco also says the school system's current policies have failed children. For example, he says, graduation rates have fallen to record lows for five years in a row.
"We're abandoning more of our children. For too long, our current system has focused on socio-economic engineering," he said. "Our system is focused on building its own empire at the expense of our families and our kids. If it was about the kids, our graduation rates wouldn't be falling through the floor."
Since December, the board majority has also ended mandatory year-round school assignments and early-dismissal Wednesdays, which Burns says give teachers an opportunity to collaborate on improving student achievement.
The feedback has been "incredibly positive," Burns says.
"Our nearly 10,000 teachers work very hard every day for students, and they are focused on one thing – learning for all kids," he said. "It's a very difficult job to do even under the best of circumstances."
Although he disagrees with the board and its direction, Burns insists it is out of respect for both that he resigns – a decision he also insists is his alone.
"We have done many innovative things over the past 34 years," he said. "Change isn't something that concerns me. In this case, it concerns me that the direction is not one that I'm comfortable with, and as superintendent, I think the board deserves to have a superintendent aligned with its vision.
"This was a very hard decision for me to make, but I feel in my heart that it's the right decision for me."