I'm going to do separate posts, probably one per day, about the three finalists for Wake County schools superintendent.
Today's article has an overview of all three finalists. I'm going to start first with Dana Bedden, superintendent of the Irving Independent School District in Texas, as he's the least known locally.
Bedden was also the lone finalist willing to talk Wednesday. He called close to deadline so I was only able to put a fraction of what he said in the print article. Consider this the bonus coverage.
Click here to read the Bedden's bio.
In addition to his education experience, Bedden was a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, serving some stints of active duty when his unit was called up. Bedden said he was accepted into West Point but chose to go instead to the University of Florida.
Click here for a letter from Bedden that he sent to the staff of the 35,000-student district that's a summary of his tenure as superintendent.
Bedden said he started during a period when Texas was starting the new STAAR testing system and implementing a major state education budget reduction.
After the initial hit, Bedden said they weathered through the challenges to raise teacher pay and avoid more layoffs while not raising taxes and maintaining their financial ratings. While Bedden said it's not something he could necessarily do in Wake, he proudly noted that the starting teacher salary in Irving will now be $50,000 a year.
At the same time, Bedden said he worked to address the adversarial relationship that he had inherited between the school system and business community. He said it's improved to the point now where the local chamber of commerce is raising money for the school system.
Bedden also pointed to increased parental involvement at schools through the " Our House Is Your House" campaign. He said there's now a parent center established at every school.
Bedden said that while they're not saying that all schools should be exactly the same, they're working to set the same expectations for what they should all be doing.
“Every decision I’ve made is based on how we can make our children successful,” Bedden said.
Bedden also pointed to how he commissioned an audit of the special education program.
In terms of academics, Bedden said that the SAT participation rate has shot up from 39 percent to 85 percent. While the scores are still below the state average, Bedden said they've gone up even as more students take the exam.
Bedden also pointed to how the numbers of students taking Advanced Placement exams is going up along with the percent who are passing by getting 3s or higher.
Bedden noted that Irving is one of 487 districts nationwide invited to participate in the AP STEM Access program. The program was created to increase the number of traditionally underrepresented minority and female high school students taking Advanced Placement courses in STEM disciplines.
While 82 percent of Irving's students receive free-and-reduced lunch, Bedden said that shouldn't be a road block or a barrier to academic success.
Bedden said they've increased foreign language instruction to the point where students can be trilingual instead of just bilingual.
They've also increased the number of students participating in performing arts programs during the tight budget times, according to Bedden.
"He was really progressive when he came here,” said Gwen Craig, who until recently was a member of the Irving school board, called the board of trustees. “He’s done a wonderful job of leading the district.”
Bedden was unanimously hired by the Irving board of trustees in 2010. But, after the May 11 election, six of the seven board seats are now held by Bedden's critics.
At the first meeting Monday of the new Irving board, the new majority announced plans to hold a special closed-session meeting Friday to review Bedden’s performance.
Bedden has clashed with some board members about having replaced a staff-developed curriculum with a third-party curriculum and for expanding a program that allows Spanish-speaking students to take some of their core classes in their native language through fifth-grade. The new board majority has advocated rolling back those programs.
For instance, the Dallas Morning News reported Tuesday that the new Irving board dropped the CSCOPE curriculum Monday against staff’s advice,
The article says that about three-quarters of Texas school districts buy the suite of teacher guides and lesson plans instead of writing their own curriculum. Irving ISD is one of the first to drop the program.
The article says that conservative groups across the state claimed CSCOPE’s lessons contained socialist and Islamist propaganda.
Craig and former board president Ronda Huffstetler both charge that the real problem isn’t Bedden’s job performance. They say he’s in danger of being fired from Irving, a city outside of Dallas, because of his race.
“Irving is a white community and we have an African-American man,” Craig said. “They’ve never given him a chance.”
Both former board members predict the new majority will fire Bedden, something they say is undeserved.
Steven Jones, president of the Irving board and a longtime critic of Bedden, did not return a request for comment Wednesday.
Bedden has been reluctant to publicly criticize board members. He declined to say if he felt race was behind his current difficulties with the board.
"I can't speak for other people," Bedden said. "Every day I come in ready and focused on improving the district's performance."
Bedden said that he is lawfully required to carry out any action by a majority of the board that doesn't violate state law or doesn't violate ethics.
Bedden said his job is to advise the school board. If they reject his advice then it's his job to go back to the drawing board and come up with something else.
Despite the job uncertainty, Bedden said he didn't seek the Wake job. He said he was contacted by McPherson & Jacobson, the board's search firm. He noted that his wife grew up in Wake and his son now attends UNC-Chapel Hill.
“It’s one of the best districts in the country,” Bedden said. “It’s also an opportunity to bring my family home. It’s a win-win situation.”
Bedden said he's also aware of the controversy in Wake that has seen superintendents exit at a rapid rate over the past three years.
"I want to see if I can be part of moving the district forward and providing some stability," Bedden said. "I don't want to add to the revolving cycle."
Wake school board chairman Keith Sutton said they hadn’t been aware of Bedden’s difficulties with his board when they decided to name him a finalist. But Sutton said he doesn’t think it will hurt his chances.
“He’s been a superintendent with three different districts so we know he’s capable, he’s experienced,” Sutton said. “The board change is something that’s happened here where there’s been a change in political philosophy. That happens.”
Wake school board member Tom Benton said that Bedden offered a compelling vision for what he’d like to do in Wake.
Craig and Huffstetler both say Bedden is capable of leading Wake, which is more than four times the size of Irving.