Upbringing drives Wake's point man on school zoning

Tedesco to steer coming changes

Staff WritersMarch 21, 2010 

  • T. Keung Hui has covered education for The N&O for 11 years. Hui writes the WakeEd blog at newsobserver .com .

  • Supporters and opponents of Wake County's diversity policy are mobilizing for a Tuesday showdown on the final vote for a resolution that would move the district toward neighborhood schools.

    The March 2 meeting where the board voted 5-4 to give initial approval to the resolution was a raucous, standing-room-only event. It's expected to be even more emotional Tuesday.

    The meeting starts at 3 p.m. and the public comment period, at 4 p.m. But you're advised to show up early if you want a seat and an early spot on the speaker's list. With more than 100 people who signed up on March 2, slightly more than half of the speakers spoke before the board voted.

    The meeting will be held at the school district's central administration building, 3600 Wake Forest Road in Raleigh.

    In advance of the meeting, a group of local clergy who support the diversity policy have organized a candlelight vigil for 7 p.m. Monday at Martin Street Baptist Church, 1001 E. Martin St. in Raleigh.

  • On having attended high-poverty public schools while growing up in the Pittsburgh area: "Most of the schools were all poor, and it didn't make a difference to us. They all tried to help us. We were proud of who we were. We had community pride. Maybe we were considered destitute."

    On his personality: "I know who I am, and I know where I came from. I know what I believe in. Sometimes it comes off as being arrogant. But that's really not the case. I have a compassionate heart."

    Comparing the Wake school system to a sinking ship: "We're going to turn around the Titanic that is the Wake County school system."

    Comparing the Wake school system to Toyota: "We are a good school system. I'm not going to deny that by any means. Like Toyota, we sold a lot of cars, but we lost sight of quality."

  • Born: Jan. 20, 1975, in New York

    Family: Father, Vito, 60; three brothers, Michael, 34; Christopher, 24; James, 18 (senior at Garner High School); two sisters, Samantha, 21; Allison, 19 (both students at Wake Tech)

    Occupation: Vice president at Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Triangle, 2006 to present; director of development for Ocean's Harbor House, 2003 to 2006; borough administrator for Highlands, N.J., 2001 to 2003; director of annual giving for Pace University in New York City, 1999 to 2001; director of program development and membership services at Alpha Chi Rho Fraternity Educational Foundation, 1997 to 1999.

    Education: Bachelor's degree in political science with a concentration in public administration, Thiel College, Greenville, Pa., 1998

    Political affiliation: Republican

    Civic groups: Member of executive council for the Wake County Transformation Network; named 2008 Goodmon Fellow at Leadership Triangle

    Hobbies: Visited 81 of the nation's 100 largest municipal statistical areas, as defined by the U.S. Census.

He is a childless 35-year-old single man. He is among a wave of newcomers to the state who are influencing local policies. A few months ago, he won his first election to public office. Now he says he has the right formula for what he sees as a needed turnaround of the state's largest school system.

John Tedesco, whose election to the Wake County school board in November helped form a majority against the school system's policy of busing for economic diversity, has emerged as the group's front man in its push for neighborhood schools.

The Garner resident heads a committee created to devise a new way to assign the county's 140,000 public school students to individual schools. Amid a loud and increasingly bitter debate, the board is poised to take a final vote Tuesday on ending the diversity policy that aimed to limit the percentage of low-income students in individual schools.

In numerous interviews with local and national media, Tedesco has been outspoken and assertive in defending the board majority's intentions, which some call a recipe for segregated schools. His high profile has made him a lightning rod for those who fiercely oppose scrapping the diversity policy, which has drawn national recognition and praise.

Tedesco responds to attacks on his own motives for change by pointing to his upbringing as an impoverished child attending a series of mostly poor schools in New York City and Pittsburgh. He also cites his career choices to work for organizations helping poor children.

Opponents of the board majority have tried to threaten his job as vice president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Triangle and dug through his background.

"They're trying to attack me and discredit me," Tedesco says in an interview at a coffee shop near his Garner home. "At the end of the day, I know by the grace of God, I'm doing it for the children."

A stocky workaholic, Tedesco is the co-author of the resolution before the board on Tuesday. The focus will remain on Tedesco as he leads the committee that will spend the next nine to 15 months drawing up the new system for assigning students to schools in their community.

Last month, at the Historic Thousands on Jones Street rally, supporters of the diversity policy chanted "Hey-hey, ho-ho, John Tedesco's got to go." Tedesco says his car, which was parked outside a bowling alley while he was at a fundraiser for Big Brothers Big Sisters, was plastered with rally posters that Saturday.

"We obviously feel that John Tedesco needs to be serving somewhere other than the school board because his policies are not in the best interests of the school system," says Duke University historian Tim Tyson, who led the chant at the march. "But it's his policies and not him personally that we object to."

Other critics have gone after Tedesco personally.

In a complaint filed with an agency that accredits Wake's schools, the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, has accused Tedesco and other members of the board majority of harboring racist attitudes.

In the wake of Sept. 11

Tedesco's résumé has also come under scrutiny from those who have contacted the media to accuse him of embellishing details and leaving things out. For instance, questions have been raised about Tedesco's firing in 2002 from his job as borough administrator of Highlands, a New Jersey waterfront community of 6,000 year-round and 8,000 seasonal residents located a ferry ride across from Lower Manhattan.

But John Urbanski, a former town councilman who voted for Tedesco's ouster, says the decision was based on town politics, not job performance. He noted that Tedesco got the three months' severance pay allowed city employees who are let go for political reasons.

"Going back and looking at it now, he was probably better qualified than some of the other guys we've had," Urbanski said in an interview, adding that the board went through four borough administrators during his eight-year tenure on the council.

Tedesco was running the day-to-day operations of Highlands when it became an evacuation point for thousands of people fleeing Lower Manhattan by ferry after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The townalso served as a central point for supplies and personnel traveling into ground zero.

"I worked 100-hour weeks, and so did everyone else," Tedesco says of the months after Sept. 11.

Tedesco says people have contacted Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Triangle, threatening to withhold donations unless he leaves his job as the group's vice president of development. Tedesco raises money for the group and helped form the N.C. Mentoring Children of Prisoners Initiative.

Kimberly Breeden, chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters, declined to comment, saying she hopes people will continue to give to the group no matter what school board policies are in place.

"If they can't get at me but go after my job, I have no fear of walking away from my job and sleeping in my car to help the kids they're abandoning," Tedesco says.

'They don't know John'

Tedesco's longtime friends say the personal attacks against him are being made by people who don't know how much he cares about students who face real-world obstacles to performing well in school.

"They really don't know John," says Helen Jones, 34, who has known Tedesco since childhood in Pittsburgh. "He wants what's best for children. He lived through it."

The oldest of six children, Tedesco says he never had a stable home during his childhood. With his mom a drug addict, Tedesco says he lived in 32 places, including shelters and tenements in New York City and Pittsburgh, before he turned 18. The family lived off food stamps and welfare.

Tedesco says he can remember being wrapped in blankets and put in an elevator for safety by his mother during a tenement fire at age 4.

Tedesco became a Christian early on and credits his faith with helping him deal with adversity as he took care of his younger siblings while his dad worked at a steel mill in Pittsburgh. "I didn't have to let the past dictate my future," Tedesco says. "I could have a family. I could set up roots."

Tedesco worked multiple jobs to save enough money to attend Thiel College in Pennsylvania. To save money during the summer, he says, he'd sleep in his car.

In the 12 years since he graduated from college, Tedesco has held a variety of jobs in the public and nonprofit sectors, many of which involved fundraising activities. During this period, he married and divorced; during the school board campaign, he posed for pictures with a nephew.

Tedesco says his life has "been pretty crazy." Among his adversities, he says, was surviving an accident that sent his car down a cliff. He said he dragged himself up the embankment to get help. He was in rehabilitation for a year. "I know that God has a plan for me," Tedesco says. "Everything has a reason."

Jones, Tedesco's childhood friend, says she knew how much he wanted to better his life. But she's still impressed by what he's accomplished.

"This goes to prove that people who go through bad things can do great things," Jones says. "You can break the chains."

Moving to Wake County

Tedesco helped his family relocate to Wake County in 2004 after his mother died.

He says part of his fascination with North Carolina came from a mini-record player that had been given to him when he was briefly living in a women's shelter in Pittsburgh with his mom and his brother, Mike. One of the songs was "Carolina In My Mind" by James Taylor.

With his father dealing with liver disease, Tedesco says, he regularly visited the area to attend school meetings for his two sisters, who are both deaf, and his youngest brother, who has learning disabilities.

Tedesco decided to move to Wake County for good in 2006. Within a half-mile of his Garner home, demographic reports show, residents have a median household income of $72,658; 61 percent are white, and 30 percent are black.

Tedesco says he discovered there was something wrong with the Wake school system through his experiences dealing with the school bureaucracy for his younger siblings, and in his experiences working with Big Brothers Big Sisters, which provides mentoring services to predominantly poor black children.

Supporters of Wake's diversity policy have hailed efforts to limit the percentages of poor students at individual schools as helping overall academic performance and keeping good teachers in the classroom. But Tedesco says the diversity policy has masked poor academic performance of low-income students by dispersing them around the county.

Tedesco's prescription

Tedesco argues that low-income students would be better-served going to schools in their community, even though it would increase the poverty levels at some schools. He says community schools would allow the school system to better target resources to low-income students while providing more stability to families.

"We shouldn't be putting up barriers for families by sending them to schools far from where they live," he says. "Let's give the kids the resources they need. Let's stop hiding them."

At the heart of Tedesco's plan is a proposal to divide the county into zones, with children going to schools in their community unless they want to attend a magnet program outside their area. The proposed changes please Jeff Stark, a close friend of Tedesco's since college and now a Garner parent of two children.

"He's presenting a very, very clear direction," says Stark, who moved here in 2004. "It's the clearest direction I've seen from the school board in many years. It seems to have a clear focus and not random reassignment."

Tedesco stresses that most school assignments and existing magnet programs would remain unchanged. But supporters of the diversity policy worry about the consequences of those changes, especially the likelihood they would sharply increase poverty levels at some schools.

Crystal Hayes, a Wake parent and co-director of YWCA Racial Justice Center, says Tedesco is raising points that need to be raised but is proposing the wrong solutions.

"When he argues that the current diversity policy does not meet the needs of low-income kids of color, he's right - it doesn't," Hayes says. "The more we avoid having that conversation, the more legitimacy we give to him when he says, 'I care about this issue, and I have a plan to do something about it.'"

Tedesco has been confident enough to visit many of the groups that are hostile to his proposed changes. On Saturday, he attended a forum organized by diversity policy supporters who lined up to ask him questions during breaks.

"I've got a thick skin," he says.

Despite the controversy, Tedesco has his admirers, within Wake County and beyond. For three years until 2006, Tedesco was director of development for Ocean's Harbor House, which provides a safe haven annually for 8,000 homeless and abused young people along the New Jersey shore.

"I believe in John," says Heidi Hartmann, youth shelter and outreach director for Harbor House. "He's a really smart man and can look at a plan and make it happen. There are planners and there are doers, but he can do both."

Researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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