Education

Wake school board aims for tighter rein on superintendent

Posted June 24, 2010 2:03 p.m. EDT
Updated June 30, 2010 10:19 a.m. EDT

Wake County Public School System

— It was clear from conversation among Wake County school board members Thursday that they want more say in the running of the state's largest school district when a new superintendent is selected.

"I'd like the board to be able to pull back on those reins a little" if a superintendent wants to make moves that do not accord with the board's thinking, Policy Committee Chair Debra Goldman said during a discussion of possible revisions to the superintendent's job description, which is laid out in board policy.

Superintendent Del Burns resigned, effective June 30, after splitting with the board on its decision to eliminate socioeconomic diversity as a criterion for school assignments. After Burns told them he was leaving, board members voted to put him on administrative leave, and Interim Superintendent Donna Hargens has been at the helm since. A search firm is looking for candidates to take the job.

The board, which had four members elected in November to form a five-member majority with Chairman Ron Margiotta in favor of several policy changes, had some "head-butting" with Burns when he decided on some administrative reorganization, board member John Tedesco said. Burns, he added, told the board that the power was spelled out in his contract.

"We want to have the ability to say, 'Hey, what are you doing?' " Goldman said. "I don't relish the thought of the board getting a whole, big surprise."

In another decision, the committee recommended allowing schools to be named after people. That now is allowed only for individuals buildings or for rooms or athletic fields.

The committee looked at job descriptions from Union and Guilford counties and debated language that would require board input in major changes. It was unclear, however, how far down the chain of command the board wanted to influence changes. Language crafted Thursday would require consultation with the board for any Central Office reorganization or major staff changes and approval for anything that would raise costs.

Members also asked to see job descriptions from other districts, including Durham and Fairfax, Va., which community-based schools advocates have often mentioned as a school system taking similar steps to those in Wake.

The matter will come up for the entire board on July 20, when recommendations will go to the Committee of the Whole work session before the board's voting meeting that afternoon. Diversity advocates have called for a protest that day.

In other discussion, the committee said it wants to include job-description language calling for a superintendent to "conduct a continuous evaluation" of the system's progress and to keep the public informed. Tedesco urged language saying the superintendent should "hold all departments accountable for continuous improvement."

Part of the argument that diversity-policy opponents have advanced is that student achievement has not risen as quickly as it should and that community-based assignments will do better in that area.

On school-naming, the committee will take the recommendation to the full board next month, then will take up any needed changes to the related procedures for naming, a separate board policy.

The committee also discussed how it can change policies so principals will allow non-school organizations, such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, to include information two or three times a year in packets sent home in student backpacks. Current policy has led principals to block community groups unassociated with the schools from using the backpack system, members said.

The discussion came, Tedesco said, at a time when schools need more community support to help at-risk students.

"We're missing opportunities to build communities," Goldman said.