Tata, Wake board members spar over group critical of assignment plan

Ties to coalition critical of assignment plan in question

khui@newsobserver.com, tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comFebruary 21, 2012 

  • Emails obtained in a public records request show that the three new Wake County school board members were working on a resolution calling for a one-year delay in the new student assignment plan.

    In a Dec. 12 message titled "Confidential Draft," board member Jim Martin tells fellow Democrats Susan Evans and Christine Kushner that the draft resolution is a "starting point to get ideas down on paper." Martin urges Evans and Kushner to keep the resolution between the three of them because "we need to bat ideas around ourselves without the outside pressure."

    In an interview Monday, Martin said they decided not to go forward with the resolution because they wanted to work in good faith with Superintendent Tony Tata to address their concerns about the plan. He also pointed to how students got slips in November telling them their initial assignments for the 2012-13 school year.

    "Telling 100,000 students, oops, the assignments aren't real wouldn't be right," Martin said.

    News of the previously unknown resolution drew concerns from Tata and Republican school board members.

    "A conspiracy does in fact exist, within the new Democrat majority, a conspiracy to eliminate the new student assignment plan, to subvert our highly qualified staff, and to continue to malign them," said Republican board member Debra Goldman.

    Staff writers T. Keung Hui and Thomas Goldsmith

In a series of heated weekend email messages, Wake County Superintendent Tony Tata and two members of the school board sparred over their relationship with a group that's openly critical of Tata and the new student assignment plan he shepherded.

Tata emailed board members Susan Evans and Christine Kushner on Saturday that he was concerned their support of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition meant that they were endorsing the group's attacks on him. Before being elected to the school board last fall, both Evans and Kushner were leaders in the Great Schools group.

"Given each of your professed deep involvement in and adherence to the principles of this group, I am concerned that you endorse their attacks on me and my staff (unless of course you state publicly that you do not endorse them)," Tata wrote.

In their separate replies to Tata, Evans and Kushner denied having any current involvement in Great Schools. They accused Tata of being disrespectful toward them.

"I find this unacceptable behavior for a Superintendent to exhibit towards a Board Member and counterproductive to a respectful working relationship," Evans emailed to Tata.

In an interview Monday, Kushner added that she's "going to listen to everyone," including the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, which supports implementing the new assignment plan.

The emails shed light on behind-the-scenes tensions between Tata and the new Democratic majority, none of whose members hired him in December 2010. The board voted this month to extend Tata's contract six months through December 2014.

Republican board members defended Tata's email messages.

"As I read his email it is done in a respectful way that highlights serious issues," said Republican board member Debra Goldman. "I am sure that he is concerned that all of the hard work he and his staff have invested in WCPSS is being threatened by a radical fringe group that is personally attacking him."

One-year delay resolution

The emails also reveal a previously unpublicized effort in December by Kushner, Evans and fellow new Democratic school board member Jim Martin to draft a resolution calling for a one-year delay in the assignment plan. The resolution was never presented for a vote.

The board is scheduled to discuss the student assignment plan today.

Great Schools was formed in 2010 by WakeUP Wake County, a group that doesn't endorse candidates but has generally supported positions taken by Democrats.

Great Schools opposed efforts by the previous Republican board majority to eliminate the use of socioeconomic diversity to assign students. The group later criticized the new choice-based student assignment plan and urged that implementation be delayed.

At her swearing-in on Dec. 6, Evans publicly praised Great Schools.

In its most recent criticism of the plan, Great Schools on Friday charged that "Tata's actions continue to erode the public's trust." The group accused the superintendent of trying to hide the costs of the new assignment plan through his proposal to change the start and dismissal times of schools this fall - a move that school administrations say could save $10 million.

In his Saturday email to Evans and Kushner, Tata wrote, "I could not care less about their attacks on me; what concerns me is your affiliation with this group and your implicit endorsement of said attacks and their subsequent impact on our governance and relationship with the public."

Tata's email also accused Great Schools of being a "politically charged group" that's "vying for air time and serving their own political purposes to the detriment of our governance posture and ultimately our students."

Karen Rindge, executive director of WakeUP Wake, denied Monday that the group has an agenda against anyone.

"Great Schools in Wake is about advocating for the best quality of education for all students," she said.

Defense of noninvolvement

Both Evans and Kushner emailed Tata on Saturday to say that they're not involved with Great Schools now that they're on the school board. They also said they were not involved in Friday's news release.

Pointing out that Tata's email was a public record, both board members accused the superintendent of launching a public attack.

"With all of the public records requests for Board emails, I must assume you know your broadside attack on me and another Board member is, and that you intended it to be, a public record," Kushner wrote to Tata. "I believe this raises a serious question of judgment."

Tata did not return requests for comment Monday. But in a Sunday email to Evans and Kushner, he said, "I deeply apologize if you feel that I was disrespectful."

But Tata also justified his concerns, pointing to the "recent revelation" about the resolution to stop the assignment plan and how Evans and Kushner had publicly accepted on Jan. 30 an award that WakeUP Wake gave to Great Schools.

Evans did not return calls Monday. But Kushner said Monday that she and Evans accepted the award because it was for their past work for Great Schools.

"You've got board members working behind the superintendent's back to stop the assignment plan," said Republican board member Chris Malone.

"You've got them accepting awards for Great Schools in Wake. You should expect these questions to be asked."

Hui: 919-829-4534

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