by Joe Schwartz
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School Board Chairman Mike Kelley says he’s taking a deep breath. Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate coordinator Graig Meyer is avoiding speaking in the past tense. Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public Schools Foundation director Kim Hoke sees a contract that hasn’t been renewed. The schools’ spokesperson isn’t speaking and the superintendent is referring all questions to a prepared statement.
“Until that time, I will not comment further regarding my future plans,” Pedersen states.
“The 2010-11 school year will present a normal array of challenges to my administration with respect to student achievement and dismal financial forecasts. Regardless of my decision, I need to devote my full attention every day throughout this year to providing leadership to this district as it faces these challenges.”
With 18 years of service at the top, Pedersen is the longest tenured school leader in the state and in the history of his district. He’s helped maintain and expand a tradition of top tier public schools, making the community desirable for young families and leading to two new high schools and six new schools since 1994.
Pedersen, who is on vacation, says he has long planned to take this summer to consider his future. The school system celebrated 100 years in 2009. Now they could be looking for a new author for the next chapters.
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. His superintendent tenure coupled with five years as an assistant make him eligible for full retirement benefits this year.
He’s always intended to give the board ample time to find a replacement. If he informs the board this month, the one-year clock would start on its 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. I don’t think that’s going to change in the near future,” he says, adding that the superintendent’s long tenure “sort of speaks for itself.”
Awards say something, too, and Pedersen has guided the district to many of them. 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.
The district has earned plaudits outside of the classroom, as well, notching a Green Plus North American Sustainable Enterprise Award for eco-friendly construction and conservation earlier this year.
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 and Orange County has one of the highest per pupil expenditures in the state, and that’s because of his commitment and ability to coalesce the community in recognizing and building the importance of education,” she says.
Pedersen has also held back funding requests and turned down bonuses when the economy has dictated it. Hoke says his true skill comes with encouraging participation, listening and holding high standards.
The job can be grueling, though, so Hoke says she won’t be surprised if Pedersen steps down.
“I think the Board of Education during my tenure in the superintendent’s office as long as they were pleased with the superintendent made a particular point to go ahead and extend the contract four years to make sure the person that they liked stayed,” she says.
“That 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 consistency and of pushing for achievement not only among top students but for all, Hoke says.
Critics of the district have long maintained that Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools concentrate on the progress of the community’s high achieving children, many sons and daughters of UNC professors, while minority achievement has lagged.
Pedersen 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 model 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 traditional classroom structure.
Blue Ribbon has been a remarkable success, with only one student dropping out in 15 years and all of this year’s graduates heading on to post-secondary education.
“I feel like [Pedersen] 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.