Wake school board members and Tata trade barbs

khui@newsobserver.comMay 22, 2012 

SKULASSIGN176.NE.030612.CCS

Wake County School Superintendent Tony Tata, left, talks to Board members Susan Evans before a Wake County School Board meeting held at the school system headquarters on Dillard Dr. in Cary, N.C. on March 6, 2012.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com

  • School system bickering Here are some of the incidents that have happened with the Wake County school board since December: February: Schools Superintendent Tony Tata apologizes for questioning whether school board members Susan Evans and Christine Kushner were violating the code of ethics through their involvement with the Great Schools in Wake Coalition. March: Evans apologizes for sending an email in which she used an indirect vulgarity to describe Tata. March: School board chairman Kevin Hill, a Democrat, chastises board member Jim Martin for alleging in an email that staff only made school schedule changes for this fall to benefit Republican board members. May: Hill said during a board meeting he’s “been embarrassed” by the behavior and comments made by board members to each other and at times to staff.

— The Wake County school board, as its members often say, is there to serve the children, but on Tuesday the board’s nine members and school superintendent spent two hours debating how they can better serve as adults.

Months of carping between members and tension between new members and Superintendent Tony Tata brought all ten to the table for a special discussion led by an independent moderator. The moderator, Jim Huge, a retired educator, tried to defuse hard feelings in what he called a “dysfunctional family.” The meeting quickly evolved into an airing of complaints centered around notions of respect, or lack of it.

While the meeting ended with promises to be civil, the encounter raised the question of whether Tata can have an effective relationship with the board after objecting to the actions of at least two members of the board that employs him.

Tata, a former U.S. Army general hired by the previous board before it switched to Democratic control, complained about some board members disrespecting staff and new board members charging they’ve been patronized by the administration.

New Democratic school board member Christine Kushner said she was surprised by Tata publicly airing his complaints, but she thinks they can move past their current problems.

“All nine of us and the superintendent need to develop a partnership. That wasn’t happening before,” she said.

School board chairman Kevin Hill said the session was a “healthy discussion” that could start a fresh chapter with Tata.

“I’m hopeful that having this kind of a candid discussion today will allow us all to come together,” he said.

Underlying much of the discussion was the fallout over the new student assignment plan that was adopted by the prior-Republican led board in October. A new Democratic majority took over in December and agreed to allow the plan to go forward, but not without complaints about how it’s being implemented.

“The staff has worked tirelessly to implement this student assignment plan,” Tata said. “There have been some pretty wicked emails and statements by some board members as the staff have tried to implement this plan.”

New Democratic school board member Jim Martin said he accepts that the new plan has to go forward for this fall. But he defended his right to air his objections, including in emails to parents complaining about their children’s school assignments.

“I do not approve with what’s been happening,” Martin said.

The acrimony over the past several months reached a point that Huge, the moderator, read emails and watch videotapes of board meetings. Huge told the board it’s clear that a lack of trust exists.

“To the extent that it’s humanly possible, I would strongly urge that you assume the other person’s motive is to help the board function at the highest level so the board can serve the students at the highest level,” Huge said.

Martin and new Democratic board member Susan Evans laid out their complaints about Tata.

Martin said that Tata hasn’t worked to get the board to feel “ownership” in the direction of the school system.

Evans accused staff of presenting items to the board as if they’re a done deal. She also accused Tata of being defensive whenever she questions him.

“There are times that I have not felt respected,” Evans said. “Maybe that’s my perception but I'm going to say that. At times I felt I’ve been patronized by certain members of the staff and I don’t think that’s healthy.”

Tata acknowledged that some board members feel he has “ill intent.” But he said board members shouldn’t “cut our knees out from underneath us, which has happened at times.”

“I felt like I was communicating,” Tata said. “What is it that I'm not doing because I'm perceiving an attack that I’m not doing something.”

Republican school board member Debra Goldman came to Tata’s defense, saying that some board members are trying to micromanage things that are in the staff’s purview. She also complained that board members are talking over and interrupting each other at meetings.

“We need to stop battling with our superintendent,” Goldman said. “He has to feel enough trust that he can say things and not feel like he's going to be receiving combat over what he has just said.”

School board attorney Ann Majestic said the “sniping” has hurt the board and Tata’s effectiveness.

“All 10 of them need to decide to drop their weapons,” Majestic said. “They’re all carrying weapons against each other. Sniping across the board table, trying to catch people at something, publicly attacking, that’s happening a lot.”

Republican school board member Chris Malone said the fighting is causing parents to question their leadership and their character. Once they make a decision, he said they need to move forward and not try to revisit it constantly.

“If I had the ability to give homework at this table, I’d say that our homework is to watch this videotape because I don't think we're doing ourselves any favors,” Malone said.

Huge got the board members to agree to meet one-one-one with Tata and say they’ll start from day one. Democratic school board chairman Kevin Hill said they all need to realize they’re passionate people so they have to be willing to compromise and collaborate.

“It’s got to be more than a token meeting or a check in the box for all of us,” Hill said.

After the meeting, Republican school board member John Tedesco said he’s hopeful that the discussion will lead to improved relations.

“If these two hours in some way makes the next year or two less contentious, it was worth it,” he said.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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