Local News

New CEO to fill leadership void for N.C. schools

Posted January 27, 2009 5:56 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:12 p.m. EDT

— A day after Gov. Beverly Perdue appointed a chief executive for North Carolina's public school system, an independent consultant released a report that explained why the move was needed.

Evergreen Solutions LLC, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based consultant, examined the state Department of Public Instruction last fall and found it lacked a clearly defined leadership structure, which thwarts efforts to improve schools and leaves questions of accountability.

"Changing and demanding times call for a structure of leadership to ensure the coherence of policy and its implementation and the agile but crisp administration at all levels," the consultants said in the 203-page report.

The report laid the blame on the continually changing role of the elected state superintendent of public instruction.

Unlike her predecessors who oversaw DPI's daily operations, Superintendent June Atkinson acts more as an education ambassador who works with school and business leaders to improve and has little authority. Instead, the State Board of Education has played a more active role in running DPI in recent years.

"It has not been good public policy. It's been more of a yo-yo effect. It's been more of a political tug of war," said Robert Schiller, an Evergreen consultant who formerly was a state education superintendent in Illinois and Michigan.

The hybrid structure didn't work, the report said.

"The general public believes the state superintendent that they elect is in charge of public education. That's not true," said John Turcotte, director of the General Assembly's Program Evaluation Division, which hired Evergreen to perform the study. "You had a deputy state superintendent supervising the work of the state superintendent by direction of the state board, and it was a question of who's in charge. Is it the board, the superintendent or deputy superintendent?"

Perdue wasted no time in adopting one of Evergreen's 43 recommendations, announcing Monday that Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Bill Harrison would become CEO of public education in the state.

"The buck ultimately stops with me, and I've put in place the man I believe can fix the day-to-day operations of the public school system," Perdue said.

Harrison, 56, said he welcomes the challenge and hopes to expand the use of technology in education to include cell phones and podcasts.

“There’s technology out there that the students use on a regular basis, and we need to use the tools that they use – tools that we may not be comfortable with but the tools they’re comfortable with,” he said. “We need to make schools more similar to what they see in the real world."

Too many students tune out too early because the tools they use in everyday life aren't incorporated into their learning, he said. The state's dropout rate has stubbornly remained close to 30 percent in recent years, despite various state and local efforts to encourage students to remain in school and graduate.

"We don't learn by sitting and listening; we learn by being actively engaged," he said. "I think too many of our students disconnect at too early an age."

In Cumberland County, 28.7 percent of students who were freshmen in 2004 did not graduate last year.

"I say the public schools are about providing children access to to their dreams – that's kind of the moral imperative – and the other part is a kind of economic development imperative," he said.

Harrison started teaching in Fayetteville in the mid-1970s and also served as superintendent in Brunswick, Hoke and Orange counties before taking over in Cumberland County 12 years ago.

"I think one of my strengths as a leader is I was a visible leader," he said, adding he will take that hands-on approach to Raleigh.

"I will never lose sight of what we're about, and we're going to try to streamline the bureaucracy, if you will, as much as we possibly can," he said.

He will start work in Raleigh in March, but the Cumberland County school board hasn't named a replacement for him.

Atkinson will continue to serve as state superintendent, and Perdue has asked her to lead a state task force on career development and work force issues.

Harrison said he looks forward to working with her, calling her "the face of public education" in North Carolina.

“I have a great deal of respect for her, and she brings an awful lot to the table,” he said.