CARY — With Wake County schools superintendent Tony Tata’s job in apparent jeopardy, a high-profile voice in the business community is urging caution, saying this is a time when the school system needs stability.
In a three-and-a-half hour, closed-door meeting Monday, the Democrats on the board failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to add an undisclosed “personnel item” to the agenda. The five Democrats, who have had periodic conflicts with Tata, voted to add the item to the agenda. But the four Republicans, who support the superintendent, voted against it.
The meeting was recessed until Tuesday afternoon. If the board again falls short of the two-thirds majority, as expected, it would take a simple majority at next week’s regular board meeting to buy out Tata’s contract, which runs through Dec. 31, 2014. In such a buyout, Tata would get one year’s salary — $255,222.
Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said Monday he is disappointed that discussions of Tata’s departure are apparently under way.
“Mr. Tata’s performance regarding closing achievement gaps and improving classroom performance seemed to have the district moving in the right direction — some of the innovation that we have seen has certainly been appreciated in the business community,” Schmitt said. “He helped (provide) stability at a point in time when we were very unstable. He did, I thought, a great job reaching out to the community.”
At Monday’s meeting, a group of about 30 self-described nonpartisans gathered outside to oppose any move to remove the retired U.S. Army brigadier general.
“Tony Tata is a super superintendent,” said Pete Ashworth, 79, of Garner, who said Tata has twice visited his veterans’ group in Fuquay-Varina.
Democratic board members were tight-lipped about the subject of Monday’s discussion. But supporters of the Democrats have been harshly critical of Tata, who was hired by the former Republican majority on the school board.
In particular, there has been concern about the implementation of a new student assignment plan and transportation issues at the start of this school year. At last week’s meeting, critics accused the superintendent of scapegoating Don Haydon, who oversaw school buses and resigned as chief of facilities and operations.
“We had a large-scale failed mission, and now the wrong person has been relieved of his duties,” said Amy Lee, a member of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a community group that has opposed Tata throughout his tenure.
School board members left quickly after Monday’s vote failed to meet the two-thirds burden to add an agenda item. But the brief dialogue during the public part of the meeting made clear that the closed session had not only been long, but heated.
“I am completely opposed to this process,” said Republican board member Debra Goldman.
Republican board member Deborah Prickett said she was “completely and utterly” opposed.
“I’m just disgusted and don’t have anything further to say,” added Republican board member Chris Malone.
The board will resume the session at 3 p.m. Tuesday at school system headquarters in Cary. It will follow a previously planned policy committee meeting on changing the student assignment policy. A new assignment plan remains to be worked out, and a bond issue for next year is just entering the discussion phase.
Susan Bryant, chairwoman of the Wake County Republican Party, had urged people to attend Monday’s meeting to support Tata. Later Monday, she said, “I’m very disgusted with this board; they want to go back to the past. They are trying to get rid of what’s working before they’ve even had a chance to demonstrate that it’s working.”
Schmitt, the chamber president, said Monday that this would be a bad time to replace the leader of the 150,000-student system, which has a $1 billion plus budget.
He said the chamber had been in touch with board chairman Kevin Hill and vice chairman Keith Sutton, both Democrats, about the ongoing discussions related to Tata’s performance and future.
“We need the best and wisest decision-making process that we can generate,” Schmitt said. “And so, we’ve expressed our concern about this issue to the two chairs.”
Tata was the chief operating officer of the D.C. Public Schools when the Republican board majority hired him in December 2010. None of the Democrats on the board then voted for him.
During the first year of Tata’s tenure, he was widely credited with getting the school board to stop its partisan bickering and with calming the community. AdvancED, an international accreditation agency, praised Tata in a January report that saw the group raise the accreditation status of Wake’s high schools.
But relations worsened after Democrats swept last fall’s elections to regain the board majority. Tata has had several public run-ins with all three new Democratic board members — Susan Evans, Christine Kushner and Jim Martin.
“I’m concerned about the way the public is going to view all of this,” Prickett said after Monday’s meeting. “We truly need the leadership and strength of Superintendent Tata. That’s keeping us moving.”
News researcher Teresa Leonard contributed to this report.