Tata's downfall

Politics and personalities were in play – poor reasons to oust Wake schools chief Tony Tata.

September 25, 2012 

The sudden firing of Tony Tata, Wake County’s school superintendent, throws this community right back into the thick of the partisan-tinged turmoil that has afflicted the school system for the past three-plus years.

The five Democrats who hold power on the nine-member school board – power they were granted last fall by voters fed up with the high-handed tactics of Republicans who had been in charge the previous two years – acted hastily and secretively.

As they moved to give Tata the boot, they shielded themselves from public oversight with the excuse that discussion of his status was a “personnel matter.” However, in doing so they failed to make a credible case that his performance was so poor that firing was warranted. That made them vulnerable to the entirely reasonable suspicion that they were driven by partisan politics and personality conflicts.

To state the obvious, neither should have been grounds for Tata’s dismissal. A justifiable firing would have hinged on efforts to undermine or defy the board’s directives, or a sustained pattern of incompetence. If either were evident, board members have not gone to the trouble of explaining them.

Partisan currents

Has Tata, as superintendent since January of last year, been perfect in every respect? No. But a fair appraisal should have given him credit for vigorous community outreach and for helping steer the Wake schools into calmer waters after the Republican-led school board – the board that hired him – had made a pluperfect mess of things.

The recent problems with bus routes that dogged the school year’s start could be cited as evidence of Tata’s mismanagement. Yet those problems, intertwined with the vexing issue of student assignment, were not ones that rose to the level of ousting a superintendent who had more than two years left on his contract. Especially not, since his firing only aggravates the political rifts on the school board that have made it so hard to reach consensus on how best to serve all the kids and families who depend on strong public schools.

There’s no denying that the Republican board members who hired Tata in late 2010 were making their own political statement. The retired Army brigadier general and former chief operating officer of the Washington, D.C. schools had emerged as an outspoken Republican partisan.

Wake Democrats gritted their teeth and braced for a superintendent who would salute and carry out the board majority’s plan to ditch diversity in student assignments, heedless that the result would be a two-tier system of schools for the haves and have-nots.

But when the majority couldn’t devise a workable neighborhood schools plan – and after protests against what looked like school resegregation put Wake in an unflattering national spotlight – the board asked Tata to come to the rescue.

Choice and chance

The upshot was the choice-based assignment plan that’s being used this year. It turned out to have enough kinks that after Democrats reclaimed their board majority in the elections last fall, they moved to hit the reset button yet again. They directed that base schools be restored for each address and that a level of diversity be put back in the equation.

There appears to be a sense among some new board members who were never among Tata’s admirers, and who rightly are concerned about the creation of low-performing, high-poverty schools, that his latest efforts didn’t pass muster. Maybe not, but now their efforts to craft a suitable plan will be complicated by the need to find a highly qualified new superintendent who will want to work with such an overbearing group.

Kevin Hill, the board’s veteran chairman, is a particular disappointment for letting the firing go forward. Hill himself had said in July he hoped Tata would remain in the job. As leader of the Democratic faction, he should have impressed upon his colleagues the value of moving beyond partisan rancor.

That would have required some forbearance on the Democrats’ part. But this community is way overdue for some harmony and good-faith cooperation among the people who chart the school system’s course.

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