Wake school board fires Superintendent Tata

School board Democrats say he was unable to bridge differences; Republicans blame politics 

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comSeptember 25, 2012 

  • Tony Tata’s tenure in Wake County December 2010 Wake County School Board hires Tony Tata — chief operating officer of the D.C. Public Schools and a retired Army brigadier general and author — as the system’s superintendent in a 4-2 vote. Only Republicans vote yes. February 2011 The school board puts Tata in charge of developing a new student assignment plan. October 2011 Tata accuses Democratic school board candidate Jim Martin, who would eventually be elected, of putting out an “inaccurate press release” and making “untrue” statements about staff. October 2011 At Tata’s urging, the school board votes 6-2 to approve the choice-based student assignment plan. November 2011 School board member Kevin Hill wins election runoff to complete sweep of five seats that give Democrats a new 5-4 majority. Hill says he’d give Tata an “A-” grade for his performance and expects him to stay on. February 2012 Tata charges new Democratic school board members Susan Evans and Christine Kushner with potential ethics violations over their ties with the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a group critical of the superintendent. Tata later apologizes. March 2012 Evans apologizes for using a vulgarity to describe Tata in an email circulated among Great Schools in Wake members. May 2012 During a school board meeting, Tata says the new board members have been “throwing the staff under the bus” and “disrespected” staff. Evans accuses Tata of being “defensive” and not showing her respect. June 2012 The board’s Democratic majority directs staff to come up with an address-based student assignment plan for the 2013-14 school year that includes diversity as a component. August 2012 Tata takes responsibility for bus problems, and he pledges to improve the situation that has affected thousands of students and their families. September 2012 Staff presents a new student assignment plan that Democratic members complain is short on details on how to keep schools from having too many low-performing students.

— The Wake County school board voted Tuesday to fire Superintendent Tony Tata after less than 20 months on the job, with some of the board’s majority Democrats calling him a polarizing figure who couldn’t bridge the board’s political divisions. The move points to the panel’s partisan divide and leaves its administration without a permanent leader as it faces pressing issues of growth, achievement, student assignment and financial support.

The 150,000-student system, the state’s largest, finds itself once again the center of turmoil, a familiar position since the fall election of 2009. That’s when mostly suburban voters fed up with frequent reassignment and long bus rides ushered in the Republican-led board that hired Tata. But a change in board leadership to Democratic control after 2011 elections led to increasing friction between Tata and Democrats. They have fought for returning to diversity as a factor in student assignment, among other changes.

Controversy about Tata’s tenure heightened after a series of public disputes with Democrats on the board, complaints about the new, choice-based student assignment plan and a protracted dysfunction in the system’s busing of more than 70,000 students. Ultimately, the conflicts led to Tuesday’s 5-4 party-line vote to send Tata on his way with a severance package of $253,625 — one year’s salary and other costs.

“It is an epic failure of this board,” Republican board member John Tedesco said before the vote Tuesday. “To spend a quarter-million dollars this way, I wouldn’t trust this board with my lunch money.”

Members of the school board and the county commission are to begin meeting next month on a school-construction bond issue that will require voter approval, an effort to meet projected growth of tens of thousands of students during the next decade. In addition, the board is in the process of working up a student assignment plan which would be the third for families in three years.

After the vote, Democratic members said that Tata had been a polarizing force as the board worked to bridge its partisan divide.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” an emotional Christine Kushner, one of three new Democratic board members that Tata had feuded with, said after the vote. “I truly believe we have reached an internal breaking point.”

Fellow Democratic board member Susan Evans said Tata ultimately failed to get the board, administration and his office working smoothly together.

“It wasn’t in specific areas,” Evans said. “It was concerns about the total collaborative relationship.”

As the transition began, Evans and Democratic school board chairman Kevin Hill alluded to additional, unspecified elements in the situation, described only as “more than meets the eye.”

But Democrats didn’t formally go into specifics about why Tata was fired. The board didn’t cite cause in the separation agreement, instead using a section in his contract to pay him a year’s salary to fire him before the agreement’s December 2014 end date.

Until a search can be launched and a replacement for Tata hired, the board named Stephen Gainey acting superintendent for a period of up to 60 days. He’s currently assistant superintendent in charge of human resources.

Tata, 53, came into office at the end of January 2011. State law doesn’t allow school districts to use state money to fire a superintendent so Wake will pay the $253,625 out of its local savings.

‘Proud of accomplishments’

Tata, who was not at Tuesday’s meeting, said in a press conference after the vote that he wanted to stay. Tata said he was “proud of all we have accomplished,” citing things such as the rise in test scores, the narrowing of the achievement gap, raising the accreditation status of the high schools and creating two single-sex leadership academies.

“There is so much we have to do — and so much more I wanted to do,” said Tata, who didn’t take questions from reporters after he read his statement.

Tata was the chief operating officer of the D.C. Public Schools when he was hired in December 2010. None of the Democrats on the board then voted for him. Previously, he had been a U.S. Army brigadier general who had attended the Broad Superintendents Academy, a program that trains non-educators to work in school systems.

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. Jennifer Oliver, a spokeswoman for AdvancED, said Tuesday that the firing will not affect the district’s accreditation.

Board member Susan Evans said the decision wasn’t based on any one item but a culmination of items which she said she couldn’t discuss because they’re personnel-related.

“This was not an easy decision for any of us to get to,” Evans said. “We’re not gloating about this.”

One of the Democrats elected last year, Evans said she did not come into office with the intention of getting rid of Tata.

‘He brought us together’

But a visibly angry Tedesco said Tata had bridged the gap on the board elected in 2009, citing Democratic votes for the choice-based plan passed in 2011.

“He brought us together,” Tedesco said of Tata.

“These people came in and tore it apart,” he said, referring to the board majority elected in fall 2011.

Parent Eric Isakson, whose daughter attends the Wake Young Women’s Leadership academy championed by Tata, said he was disappointed in the board’s action and in its decision not to allow public comment at Tuesday’s meeting.

“You often see him out and around,” he said of Tata, praising the former superintendent’s visibility in the community.

Tata, who put his writing and cable news commentary career on hold while in Wake, tirelessly worked the county, building a strong following particularly among Republicans bent on school reform.

“Today is a sad day for our school system and community, but nothing has changed about our commitment to students,” said Hill, the board chairman, who had said during last fall’s re-election campaign that Tata was doing a good job and was expected to be superintendent for “years to come.”

“This is not a personal decision,” added Democratic board member Jim Martin, who denied the move was a partisan decision. “This is a personnel decision, and this is a large difference.”

Republican school board members, who had all voted to hire Tata, railed at the firing.

“This is a big mistake,” said Republican board member Chris Malone. “It’s a political mistake, and the result — both out there and in here — it’s going to be felt for a very long time.”

Fellow Republican board member Debra Goldman was close to tears as she accused her Democratic colleagues of acting for “partisan” reasons. She said she wore a white ribbon to symbolize a harbinger of great loss.

“I grieve for our children, our parents and our staff,” Goldman said.

Goldman blamed the firing on the influence of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a group that’s often been critical of Tata. Evans and Kushner were leaders in the group before their election last fall.

Former Wake County school board member John Gilbert, speaking on behalf of Great Schools, called Goldman’s allegations “total nonsense.”

Gilbert, a Democrat, said Tata has given “ample reasons” to be discharged, such as forcing out longtime school employees. He accused Tata of having forced out Don Haydon over the bus problems. Haydon resigned last week as chief of facilities and operations.

“The morale of people in the school community — principals and teachers — has been really low because of this man’s behavior,” Gilbert said. “I would have fired him long ago.”

However, Tata has also gained the confidence of many voters. One of them, made public his email to board chairman Hill.

“Not only will the taxpayers of Wake County have to pay for Mr. Tata’s salary, we will have to pay for another superintendent while teachers fear for their jobs and uncertainty abounds in a difficult economy,” said Raleigh resident Ryan Eves, who said he had voted for Hill. “I cannot begin to understand how this was the best move for our county.”

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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