RALEIGH — Promising to bring order, discipline and efficiency to the state's largest school district, the Wake County school board's Republican majority selected retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony J. Tata as the system's new superintendent Thursday in a 4-2 vote.
Two Democratic board members, while pledging to work with Tata, criticized his relatively short tenure in education - 18 months as chief operations officer for the Washington, D.C., city schools versus his 28 years of military service. In what seemed to be a bid to reassure those concerned about the future of academics in Wake, board Chairman Ron Margiotta and others effusively praised interim superintendent Donna Hargens. Tata said he'd ask Hargens to stay on as chief academic officer.
The vote notably reunited the five-member Republican majority that was well on its way to dramatically reshaping the state's largest school system before board member Debra Goldman defected on several key issues touching on student reassignment. Goldman, head of the board's search committee, gave Tata an enthusiastic endorsement.
"He has educational experience and we are pleased at the combination of skills that this candidate will bring to Wake County," Goldman said.
GOP school board members praised Tata's leadership skills, saying his military background is what the school district needs to help with the budget and improve academic achievement.
"He will be the CEO of a $1.2 billion business," said GOP school board member John Tedesco. "There are few and far between the number of leaders of his caliber who have entered Wake County."
Democratic board members objected to both Tata's background and the hurried pace and lack of openness in the hiring process.
"Nothing in his background of experience suggests that he is prepared to lead the largest school district in North Carolina," said Democratic board member Carolyn Morrison, a retired Wake principal.
Morrison added that she thought Wake "could do better for the parents, children, staff and taxpayers" than to hire Tata.
Tata was not at Thursday's meeting but will start work Jan. 31 at an annual salary of $250,000 plus benefits, according to his contract. The contract runs through June 2014.
"I am humbled to be selected as the next superintendent, ... " Tata said in a written statement. "I intend to focus the system's impressive resources on the academic achievement of our students and on closing the achievement gap in student performance."
The Wake school system will be provided with three free audits - on topics including academic standards, curriculum and hiring practice - by the Broad Superintendents Academy, the Los Angeles nonprofit institute that trains former generals, CEOs and others to lead large school systems. Tata, 51, trained there during the last period of his military service and afterward. In addition, for a year, the academy will provide Tata with a senior adviser with a strong academic background, the new superintendent said in his statement.
Finding Tata cost $82,500 plus expenses for the services of a search firm and involved more than 120 applicants. In July, the board had voted to loosen the educational requirements for the post, which formerly required a superintendent's certificate and three years working in education within the past 10 years.
"We broadened our horizons," Deborah Prickett said.
None of the other applicants' names were released. Republican board members argued that confidentiality would raise the caliber of the candidates. Goldman said Tata was chosen over two other finalists.
Yevonne Brannon, a former county commissioner and current head of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, said the nature of the search was ironic.
"This board ran on, 'We'll listen - we'll be open,'" she said. "And now we have a superintendent that we hear about after the contract is signed."
By contrast, Republican board member Chris Malone said he was ecstatic about hiring Tata. "We've got someone who can handle a large budget, where there have been problems all along," he said.
Malone said the board expects Tata to refrain from some of the high-profile political punditry he has practiced in recent years as a political commentator on the Internet.
Democrats Morrison and Kevin Hill voted against Tata's appointment. Dr. Anne McLaurin, a Democrat, said she could not escape professional responsibilities to attend the meeting.
Democratic member Keith Sutton boycotted the meeting, which was called on 48 hours' notice. By e-mail he said he was "concerned about meetings being called without ample preparation, notification, or professional courtesy being extended to fellow board members."
A motion backed by Morrison and Hill to defer the vote to Jan. 4 to allow for parental comment was defeated by the same 4-2 vote. But both said they'd back Tata now that he's hired.
Malone said they held the meeting on such short notice to make sure that the deal with Tata didn't fall through.
Tata's predecessor, Del Burns, who announced his resignation in February because he opposed board decisions, made $273,000. He spent most of the last 34 years in education.
Tata's work in D.C.
Tata, 51, has been in charge of purchasing, food service, technology and other support functions for the 46,000-student D.C. school system since June 2009.
Tata rose to the rank of brigadier general during a military career that included stints in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Panama and the Philippines. He's been a battalion commander for the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg and the deputy director of a group with a $4.5 billion budget charged with developing ways to protect soldiers from improvised explosive devices.
"Gen. Tata is not afraid of a challenge as evidenced by his superior leadership talents with our military troops and outstanding management skills in the Washington, D.C., school system," Prickett said.
Tata was recommended, along with a list of other top candidates, by Heidrick & Struggles, an Illinois-based executive search firm. No information was released about any other applicants.
He writes thrillers
Tata is the author of three military action thrillers, a commentator on conservative websites and a frequent guest on national television network news shows.
Supporters cited his work in D.C. schools and his training at the Broad Superintendents Academy, which is run on extended weekends over 10 months.
Tata will take charge of the 18th-largest school district in the nation (143,000 students) at a time of major challenges. Wake is likely to face layoffs, larger classes and program cuts to make up for the projected loss of more than $100 million in state and federal dollars next year. In his statement, Tata said one of his goals will be to minimize costs to put more resources into the classroom.
Margiotta said Tata's experience as a military strategist will complement Wake's focus on academic achievement.
Wake also faces a federal civil rights investigation over its student assignment practices and a special review by the organization that accredits its high schools. Both investigations stem from complaints by the state NAACP.
Tata will have to help the board implement the new student assignment model that will move Wake toward neighborhood schools.
In the face of all these challenges, GOP board members said they need someone with Tata's strong organizational skills. Tedesco cited problems such as the multimillion dollar fraud involving the school transportation department that occurred last decade.
"We need someone who can run a large organization," said Malone. "He's the right guy."
Staff writer Eric Ferreri contributed to this article.
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