Education

After Burns, should Wake schools look nationwide?

Posted March 10, 2010 4:15 p.m. EST
Updated March 10, 2010 7:19 p.m. EST

— Del Burns turned over his district-issued identification badge and cell phone Wednesday, effectively ending a 33-year career in the Wake County Public School System.

The Board of Education placed the school superintendent, who's resigning June 30, on administrative leave Tuesday evening, following comments he made last month in which he accused some board members of "political partisan gamesmanship" when it comes to educating students.

Now, school district leaders must find a successor to fill Burns' seat – Donna Hargens, the system's chief academic officer, has temporarily taken over – as the state's largest school system faces a number of challenges.

Among them are a budget gap of about $20 million, potential layoffs, how to handle growth and redefining the way the district assigns students to schools after more than a decade of busing for socio-economic balance.

"There's a lot of work to be done," board Vice Chairwoman Debra Goldman said Wednesday of the search for Burns' replacement. "I, for one, am looking forward to getting that process going."

Goldman and several other school board members – many of whom have supported changing school system policies like student busing in favor of community-based schools – have indicated a desire to conduct a nationwide search.

Other members, however, say they are not opposed to a nationwide search but believe there are qualified applicants locally.

"Personally, I'd like to see us move in that direction," board member Keith Sutton said Wednesday. "I think we have qualified candidates here."

Burns was local, and so was his predecessor, Bill McNeal, who retired in 2006.

Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a group of organizations, business leaders, parents and community members working for educational excellence in the Wake County school system, expressed disappointment about Burns’ departure.

The group says, however, that his termination must not divert attention from the challenges facing the school system.

"Long term, the board needs to find someone already familiar with the complexities of Wake County's public school system," said Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Great Schools in Wake Coalition. "Our system needs strong leadership and solid educational experience. The current chaos and instability for our families, teachers and staff is horrendous."

Other groups, like the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, have called on a nationwide search that focuses on candidates in favor of the board's new agenda.

"It is time for a new era in leadership in Wake County, one that matches the voters' desire for neighborhood schools and breaks from the discredited social engineering policies of the past," director Dallas Woodhouse said last month following Burns' resignation announcement.