Wake County Schools

Wake schools' former chief speaks out

Posted October 8, 2010 6:00 p.m. EDT
Updated October 9, 2010 8:19 a.m. EDT

— For the past few months, Del Burns has been spending time with family, working through a long to-do list he’s accumulated over the years and finally taking the opportunity to read some of the books he purchased over the past few years while he was chief of North Carolina’s largest school system.

He’s also writing a book – although he won’t say what it’s about.

“I want to be sure you do purchase it,” Burns laughs. “Wake County is certainly heavily highlighted.”

Up until July, Burns had spent his entire career with the Wake County Public School System, beginning in 1976 as a special education teacher before moving on to a number of administrative roles. In 2006, he became the system’s seventh superintendent.

After 34 years, he decided in February that it was time to call it quits.

“That was something that, frankly, I did not want to do but felt that I had to do,” Burns says.

The new school board majority, voted into office three months earlier, had already reversed several policies Burns worked to create and was working to change the school system’s decade-old student assignment policy of busing students to help achieve socio-economic diversity among student populations.

“It was very clear to me after a period of time that my values, my beliefs, the work that I’d done was not aligned with that of the new board majority,” Burns says. “They deserved, and do deserve, a superintendent who is aligned with their vision and supports the work they’re about.”

Since then, the school board began transitioning to a contentious new assignment plan to place students in schools closer to where they live – a move that has drawn criticism from various civil rights groups, spawned protests and arrests at school board meetings and fractured the board’s conservative majority.

Just this week, the vice chairwoman, Debra Goldman, expressed concern there hadn’t been enough parental or board member feedback and backed a resolution that halted work on the controversial plan, drawing ire from board member John Tedesco, who referred to her on Facebook as “Benedict Goldman.”

“The transition from campaign mode to governing mode is still in progress,” Burns says. “Obviously, recent events show there are some things where's there's not total agreement on things that are important.”

As a former teacher, principal and superintendent, Burns wants to see new leaders develop and take advantage of what he now sees as an opportunity for Wake County.

‘They have hit the pause button for a moment,” he says. “It’s time to reflect and determine what it is we really want for the future and then find a way to begin addressing that, honoring the values for everyone.”

Watching the protests and the public fights, Burn says, reminds him that, in a democracy, everyone has to be flexible.

“You can’t have everything. If you want freedom from student assignment every year, then you have to give up something,” he says. “We can’t have it all ways, but I think there are opportunities here for our community to focus … on what’s good and what the common good is and what direction we want to move toward.”