Tata's prestige rides on his plan's success

khui@newsobserver.comOctober 19, 2011 

Wake County Superintendent Tony Tata won the biggest gamble of his nine-month tenure on Tuesday, but he could still face fallout in the months ahead.

Tata accomplished his mission of getting the school board to agree on a new student assignment plan after two years of fighting about the best way to determine where students will go to school.

When opposition rose in the past month, Tata stuck his neck out by telling board members and the community that they couldn't afford any delay in adopting the plan.

With the plan now so closely identified with Tata, he'll get the credit if it works out or take the heat if he doesn't.

The first test will come next month, after a Nov. 8 runoff election - between Democratic school board member Kevin Hill and Republican challenger Heather Losurdo - decides who will hold the majority on the officially nonpartisan nine-member board.

For the past two years, the board has been controlled by Republicans - a group that brought in Tata and pushed for the new plan.

Last week's election ensured seats to four Republicans and four Democrats, leaving the runoff in North Raleigh's District 3 to determine the direction of the school system.

Partisan dynamics

Losurdo, who initially said she couldn't vote for the plan, announced this week that she was joining her fellow Republicans in supporting the plan.

A Losurdo victory would preserve the Republican majority. A GOP board majority would likely defer to Tata on making the changes he and his staff feel are needed.

Hill voted against the plan Tuesday. If he wins the runoff next month, Tata's plan will be in the hands of a new Democratic board majority. Most of the Democratic members, including those who were elected last week, have raised concerns that the new assignment plan doesn't do enough to avoid creation of low-performing schools.

Some of the new Democratic board members had urged the board to delay adoption of the plan, leading Tata to remark that it would be "insulting" to the outgoing members to take the decision out of their hands. Tata warned Tuesday that a delay would only hurt parents and students.

A new Democratic majority is more likely to make changes to the plan to beef up the student achievement component, a change that Republican board vice chairman John Tedesco has derisively said would lead to a quota system for diversity.

The extent of the changes a Democratic majority would request could delay the implementation of the new plan for the 2012-13 school year.

A target for critics

During his honeymoon period, Tata met with groups all over the county to listen to their concerns.

His willingness to sit down and talk with groups that had previously been skeptical about him because he was hired in a party-line vote by the Republican board majority won him grudging respect.

Tata's presence also seemed to ratchet down the public bickering on the school board as he became the public face for the school system.

But the new student assignment plan, along with Tata's support for implementing two new single-gender leadership academies, has eaten away at some of the retired Army general's support.

Public criticism from community members about Tata, which largely disappeared after he started work on Jan. 31 and began winning people over, has reemerged.

As work on the student assignment plan progressed - and as Tata stood fast on the need to adopt the plan Tuesday - more people began to publicly question his actions.

Patty Williams, a member of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, challenged Tata's statements that that process has been nonpolitical as she charged that holding the vote now "makes the whole process smack of politics."

Democratic board members have downplayed speculation used by supporters of the Republican board majority that a change in power would put Tata's job at risk.

But Tata knows he'll be working with at least one new board member, Jim Martin, whom he took the unusual step of criticizing days before the election.

Tata had accused Martin of misleading the public in a press release about how the school system has responded to complaints about candidates politicking at schools.

Aiming to please 85%

If there isn't much change in the plan, Tata will take heat from the public if there's any dissatisfaction, particularly from families who don't get their top choice.

Tata has estimated that they can provide 85 percent of families their top choice. But in a district with 146,000 students, that's potentially a lot of unhappy families.

Tata has won some breathing space by guaranteeing that current students don't have to change their school next year. But if more than just a small number of incoming kindergartners don't get their top choice next year, then there could be some backlash.

There could also be backlash if the plan results in high concentrations of low-income students or schools filled with empty seats.

But if the plan works as well as Tata has touted, it will be the signature piece of his tenure leading one of the nation's largest school systems.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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