Tata raises school board ethics concern

Two board members deny they are improperly swayed by interest group.

khui@newsobserver.com, tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comFebruary 22, 2012 

  • The Wake County school board requires members to adhere to a code of ethics established by the North Carolina School Boards Association.

    The first section of the code concerns duties including following state and federal laws, upholding integrity and independence, avoiding impropriety and taking ethics training annually.

    A second section contains nine additional commitments that members must uphold. The second commitment says members must:

    "Render all decisions based on the available facts and independent judgment and refuse to surrender that judgment to individuals or special interest groups."

    Board members Christine Kushner and Susan Evans have said they listen to opinions from many different sources in forming their approaches to school board matters.

    Online: www.wcpss.net/policy-files/series/policies/1035-bp.html

Wake County schools Superintendent Tony Tata's criticism of two school board members escalated Tuesday as he charged them with potential "serious code of ethics violations" because of their links to an advocacy group critical of him and the new student assignment plan.

Tata said in an email that the nonprofit group Great Schools in Wake Coalition "has a stranglehold" on Susan Evans and Christine Kushner, both Democrats elected to the board in October.

Later Tuesday, Tata said he spoke with the goal of getting special interests out of board decision-making and preserving good governance. Both members denied the claims.

"I'm focused on serving as a board member and living up to the code of ethics," Kushner said. "I take it very seriously."

Evans said she has no role in press releases sent by Great Schools and doesn't always agree with them. "I don't appreciate the superintendent's telling me who I can associate with," she said after Tuesday's school board meeting.

Both board members have said they're no longer active members of Great Schools. Tata charged they had refused his requests to "sever their ties with this special interest group." Turmoil on the board could endanger the system's move to regain full accreditation from AdvancEd, the powerful regional body that recently cited Wake's improvement in key areas, he said later Tuesday.

"I fear that the hard work put into raising our accreditation, protecting our high school diplomas and demonstrating good governance over the past year is threatened by the very narrow interests of this special interest group and the stranglehold they have on a couple of board members," Tata said Tuesday.

Email was a surprise

The clash came a little more than a year since Tata took office in January 2011, a year he has spent navigating the political waters of the school board as it tried to develop a school assignment plan and address other issues. At Tuesday's school board meeting, Evans called Tata's accusations of this weekend and Tuesday "inappropriate."

"I was blindsided when I woke up to that email Saturday morning," Evans said, referring to Tata's initial email in an exchange over their membership in the group.

Yevonne Brannon, executive director of Great Schools, rejected Tata's characterization of the nonprofit Tuesday and said Tata should have no voice in the activities of elected school board members as long as they follow their oaths and the law.

Tata and the two board members engaged in a heated series of weekend emails about their relationship with Great Schools.

Great Schools has been a frequent critic of the new assignment plan, urging that it be delayed. The group has also been highly critical of Tata, accusing him of eroding the public's trust.

The school board's code of ethics says members should refuse to surrender their judgment "to individuals or special interest groups." School board attorney Ann Majestic said Tuesday she'd have to research the issue before she could comment on whether being a member of Great Schools violates board policy.

Tata pointed again Tuesday to Kushner's and Evans' public acceptance of an award for Great Schools that WakeUP Wake County gave Jan. 30. He also noted that Kushner, Evans and the third new Democratic board member, Jim Martin, had been privately working on a resolution in December to delay the assignment plan.

"Membership in or support of special interest groups is strictly forbidden, as are secret meetings, secret draft resolutions and the like," Tata said Tuesday.

"Their attendance on stage as members of GSIW less than 3 weeks ago at an award ceremony is tantamount to members of the General Assembly banking and finance committee receiving an award on behalf of Bank of America and then returning to the committee table pretending to represent all banks and the public equally."

Kushner said that the award was for their past work with Great Schools and reiterated Tuesday that she listens to all groups as a board member.

Evans and Kushner said Tuesday they hope to have a private meeting soon with Tata in which they'll discuss their respective roles and responsibilities. Tata said he hopes the meeting will work through the concerns he has raised.

Hui: 919-829-4534