Challenges mark Wake superintendent Tata's anniversary

Superintendent's first year saw major strides, but questions remain

khui@newsobserver.com, tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comJanuary 30, 2012 

TATA10.NE.0122512.CCS

Wake County schools Superintendent Tony Tata, right, talks to a group of fifth-grade students as he tours Herbert Akins Elementary School in Fuquay-Varina on Wednesday. Tata just finished his first year as superintendent.

CHRIS SEWARD — CHRIS SEWARD - cseward@newsobserver.com

One year ago, Tony Tata stepped into the job of Wake County schools superintendent amid questions about how he could refocus a system in flux and a school board in turmoil.

Now Tata can look back on shepherding through a new student assignment plan, developing a budget that avoided teacher layoffs, bringing relative calm to the board and moving Wake back toward full accreditation for its high schools. Tata has also won over many of the skeptics who questioned how a retired U.S. Army brigadier general could lead one of the nation's largest school systems.

"I sleep well at night knowing that I left everything out on the field," Tata said last week after touring Vance Elementary School in Garner. "I get up and get after it again the next day. I am driven by the desire to serve the students, the parents and the staff as well as I can."

But as Tata hits the one-year anniversary mark Tuesday, he faces challenges such as putting the assignment plan into effect and pulling more budget tricks out of his hat. He also faces a new Democratic school board majority, none of whom had voted for his hiring.

He's also dealing with resistance from some parents who feel the options they're offered under the new assignment plan leave them worse off than before.

"We are supposed to have all these great choices, but the lack of actual seats at my closest proximity school is dismal," said Robin Stewart, 41, of Raleigh, whose daughter attends Joyner Elementary.

"I thought I always had the opportunity to return (to) my base and that's not true," Stewart said. "It's just the fact that we are not getting a real choice."

Test of support

A test of Tata's continued support could come as early as next week, when Republican school board members say they will push for Tata's contract to be extended beyond its June 2014 term.

"I'm a little concerned that some people won't extend it because they want to prove that they're in charge," said Republican board member Chris Malone.

Democratic school board Vice Chairman Keith Sutton is less eager.

"Any talk about extending a contract would be premature," Sutton said. "There are steps that you'd want to take before you start talking about that."

But Sutton is also quick to praise Tata for having "calmed the waters" in the district.

"He's done well and is certainly on the way to being a successful superintendent," he said.

The public perception of Tata wasn't nearly as uniformly positive when the school board hired him on Dec. 23, 2010, with only Republicans backing him. Critics questioned the timing of the vote, his limited education experience as the chief operating officer of the District of Columbia public schools for 19 months and his commentary on conservative websites.

Tata stopped his political commentary after coming to Wake, saying he was 24/7 focused on being superintendent. He said he's turned down dozens of interview requests to talk about topics such as the death of Osama bin Laden and the revolutionary turmoil in Libya and Syria.

Tata also moved to meet with as many groups as possible, including critics such as the state NAACP, which decried his hiring.

He said he's also on pace to visit all 165 schools in the district by Tuesday. "He's been leading from the front," said Republican school board member John Tedesco.

Former Wake student Monserrat Alvarez and others picketed outside a speech that Tata gave to the Wake County Taxpayers Association last January. Alvarez admits to some lingering suspicion of Tata because of the partisan vote to hire him.

"He has done a good job, but I still have some doubts about him and how he came here," Alvarez said.

On the other hand, Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said there's no question about Tata's support from the business community.

"He has won a great deal of respect," Schmitt said. Mark Elgart, president of AdvancED, the Georgia-based group that accredits Wake's high schools, said Tata's level of support was apparent when a review team came to the county in November. If progress continues, Elgart said, the high schools should regain full accreditation by next January.

"He has clearly gained the confidence of the board and the community," he said.

Upcoming challenges

But heading into Year 2,Tata faces pressing challenges. One to watch will be families' response in March when they find out whether they got their schools of choice under the assignment plan.

At the same time, Tata is also drafting a budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year that deals with the loss of $28 million in one-time federal funds that saved 500 teaching positions last year.

Board members credit Tata's lobbying state legislators for helping stave off deeper cuts from K-12 education. But the state faces another lean budget year.

Democratic board members are expected to ask for more money from county commissioners to help offset relatively flat funding for the past few years. Tata said he'll ask for a "realistic budget" but added that it's "premature" to announce whether he'll seek more from the county.

"It's going to be tight, but we're going to make a recommendation that right now does not cut teachers or anyone in the classroom," Tata said.

The funding challenges will have to be worked out with a different board leadership from the one that hired him.

"I'm trusting the superintendent and the staff on this (assignment) plan," said Christine Kushner, part of the new Democratic majority on the board. "They have been telling us this is the best plan for Wake County; we have to make sure that's the case."

The other two new Democratic school board members - Susan Evans and Jim Martin - have gone head tohead at board meetings with the superintendent.

Tata calls the interactions with the new board "fair and healthy discussion." Martin responded to a request for comment by emailing that a formal, closed-door review by the board was a more appropriate forum for discussing Tata's performance than a debate in the media.

Malone, the Republican board member, said some board members aren't showing Tata the respect he's showing them.

And Tedesco warned that Tata's performance has been so strong that he could be lured away if he gets too hard a time from board members.

Sutton, the Democratic board member, downplayed the concerns raised by the Republicans.

"Certainly the tensions are visible," Sutton said. "But I'm not going to get into who's respecting who or who's not respecting who. I don't think he's the kind of person who'd leave because he was disrespected or feeling tension."

Tata said he's not looking to leave.

"I love the job," he said, "and I'd like to stay as long as Wake County would have me."

Hui: 919-829-4534

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