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Chapel Hill's Pedersen to retire?

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Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School Board Chairman Mike Kelley says he's taking a deep breath. Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate coordinator Graig Meyer is trying to avoid speaking in the past tense. The superintendent is referring all questions to a prepared statement.

The signs all point to the school board's next meeting, July 22, when Superintendent Neil Pedersen will make his future plans known, ending speculation about his retirement.

"Until that time, I will not comment further regarding my future plans," Pedersen states.

"Regardless of my decision, I need to devote my full attention every day throughout this year to providing leadership to this district."

With 18 years of service at the top, Pedersen is the longest tenured school leader in the state. He's helped expand a tradition of top tier public schools, making the community desirable for young families and leading the construction of six new schools, including two new high schools, since 1994.

Departing from the past, Pedersen hasn't asked for the board to consider renewing his contract, a four-year deal signed in 2007 that expires June 30, 2011. If he informs the board of his retirement plans this month, the one-year clock would start on the search for a successor.

"I think it's premature to speculate on what approach the board would use moving forward," Kelley says. "We'll get to that later this month if that is the announcement."

Kelley says that the board's perspective hasn't changed in the last few years and that the board enjoys a positive relationship with Pedersen.

"I don't think that Dr. Pedersen is going to walk out on this July 22 meeting or anything. He'll make a decision, and he's always had the best interest of students at heart," he says.

Pedersen has guided the district to top national recognition. Newsweek ranked East Chapel Hill High School (118) and Chapel Hill High School (214) among the top high schools in the country, public or private, this year. Serving a relatively privileged student population, the district boasts the state's highest graduation rate and lowest dropout rate.

The district has earned plaudits outside of the classroom, as well, notching a Green Plus North American Sustainable Enterprise Award for eco-friendly construction earlier this year.

Kim Hoke worked in Pedersen's administration for 13 years and now steers a nonprofit foundation that raises money for the district. She says he has been a tremendous advocate for funding.

"Chapel Hill-Carrboro ... has had one of the highest per pupil expenditures in the state, and that's because of his commitment and ability to coalesce the community," she says.

The superintendent's job can be grueling, though, so Hoke says she won't be surprised if Pedersen steps down. She says it "probably is significant that he no longer asked for his contract to be renewed nor did they, it sounds like, at his request."

If he does retire, Pedersen's legacy will be one of pushing for achievement not only among top students but for all, Hoke says.

Critics of the district have long maintained that the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools concentrate on the progress of the community's high achieving children, many sons and daughters of UNC professionals, while minority achievement has lagged.

Pederson formed a task force in 1994 and charged it with helping craft the district's first comprehensive plan to close the gap. The group created the Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate Program, a tutoring, advocacy and leadership program aimed at black and Latino students.

Meyer, who leads the program, says the superintendent has always been innovative in searching for an "extra boost" to help students who don't excel in the traditional classroom structure.

"I feel like he deserves all the credit that will come to him whenever he does decide to retire," Meyer says.

The credit could be just on the horizon.

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