RALEIGH — After more than a year marked with controversy that brought national attention to Wake County's public schools, the system entered a new era Tuesday with the swearing-in of Tony Tata, a former brigadier general and lifelong lover of education.
Tata, 51, becomes the system's eighth superintendent since the merger of city and county schools in the 1970s. He received a warm welcome at the swearing-in, as even board members who had opposed his selection expressed willingness to work with him.
Some who spoke during a public comment period Tuesday, however, still linked the board which picked Tata to negative national publicity - including a harsh parody by comedian Stephen Colbert - which has portrayed Wake as resegregating its schools. But to the Republican majority, having Tata lead the system seemed to be a dream come true.
"As a parent of children that have both graduated from and are currently in the Wake County school system, I simply say thank you," said board Vice Chairwoman Debra Goldman, who also led the committee that picked Tata.
The new superintendent, who spent the past 19 months as chief operating officer of the District of Columbia schools, was sworn in by Judge Douglas McCullough of the state Court of Appeals. The audience included members of the Wake Board of Commissioners, Rep. Rosa Gill, several Wake County mayors and members of Tata's family.
"We've taken on a large challenge, and we are going to see it through," Tata said, noting that controversy has come in reaction to his less than two years' experience as an executive in education.
Tata's arrival occurs during a protracted and heated discussion about the direction of the growing 143,000-student system.
"I think the noise level has been an indication of how much people in Wake County care about education," Tata said.
Praise from a student
He received kudos from the officials and an early positive verdict from an Enloe High School student.
"His speech impressed me, and I am excited that he is passionate about our school system and that he cares and is intelligent," said Enloe sophomore Lauren Frey, 15.
Board member John Tedesco, who has provided much of the energy for the board's transformational approach, called it "an honor and a bit of a humbling experience for you to join our ranks."
But John Little, a retired history professor, warned Tata that the board's policy of embracing neighborhood schools would lead to resegregation.
"Do we really want to retreat to that?" Little asked. "The affluent schools will probably fare OK, but at great cost."
Gill, a former Wake school board member, joined other supporters of the old diversity policy in praising Tata now that he's on the job.
"If he can do what he says and raise academic achievement, we can move forward here in Wake County," Gill said.
In his first week on the job, Tata faces a projected $100 million budget shortfall, separate investigations by federal investigators and an international accrediting agency, and interlocking questions about what to do about busing, student assignment, magnet schools and the clustering of high-poverty populations at some inner-city schools. The 28-year military veteran said he's ready.
"I will make the tough decisions that this position demands," Tata said.
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