CARY — The decision to fire Wake County schools Superintendent Tony Tata followed six to eight months in which strained relations between Tata and the school board majority made it difficult for the body to make much-needed progress, the boards Democratic leaders said Wednesday.
School board Chairman Kevin Hill and Vice Chairman Keith Sutton took reporters questions Wednesday, then Hill elaborated in a later phone interview, noting that Tata and his staff made rough going out of situations such as the rollout last week of a test version of an address-based assignment plan.
At a meeting of top staff and board members last week, Hill said, Tata joined his staff in urging that the searchable address database be made public online, even though board members had not seen it or agreed to its basic premises.
I hated that we put things out there that had not been vetted by the board, said Hill, adding that he ultimately agreed to the release because it had become the subject of multiple public records requests. (Tata) was in agreement with staff that we should put it out.
When parents started using the preliminary online address database, it appeared as though the in-progress assignment plan would result in massive reassignment, something the board would never allow to happen, Hill said. Although not the precipitating incident in Tatas firing, Hill said, the turmoil resulting from the assignment plan incident typified the boards relationship with the superintendent for more than six months.
Tata declined comment Wednesday when reached by phone. The resignation of chief transformation officer Judy Peppler was also announced Wednesday. Peppler had been closely involved in the new assignment plan but had also been looking for another job.
Sutton said Wednesday that board members were concerned about the administrations release of the projected assignments by address without any board members having seen them.
Board members had disagreed Sept. 18 about whether the address database should be made public before the panel could examine it, with Republicans generally favoring the release. A series of public hearings scheduled to begin Wednesday was postponed following the disagreement.
However, many families saw the draft assignments online and quickly got in touch with board members.
All reports I am getting imply massive reassignments, which is exactly the opposite of what the Board has given as directive, Democratic board member Jim Martin wrote in reply to one family. Please do not consider the listings posted as anything other than Staffs draft. I find this whole process irresponsible and unacceptable.
Martin added later in the email: At this stage I can only surmise this is an effort of some on staff undermining the Board.
Tata, 53, spent a little less than 20 months as head of the 150,000-student Wake County schools system. Democratic members Hill, Sutton, Martin, Susan Evans and Christine Kushner supported the action, while Republicans Deborah Prickett, Chris Malone, John Tedesco and Debra Goldman opposed the firing, which will cost Wake taxpayers more than $250,000 in a payout to Tata.
Board members do not run on partisan tickets, but a marked divide between Republican- and Democratic-backed candidates has emerged beginning in the 2000s. Tata was selected by a school board slate that was elected in 2009 and put the GOP in power. However, Democratic-backed candidates took power back in 2011 and have since voted to revise a choice-based plan originally passed with votes from both parties.
Republican members vigorously opposed Tatas firing, maintaining that the system had made great strides under his leadership and that kicking him out was based on partisan politics and would cost the system dearly.
In Wednesdays joint appearance, Hill and Sutton said the problems with Tata included his inability to bridge the partisan gap on the board. But other aspects went beyond politics, Hill said.
Weve had a disastrous start of the school year and implementation of our assignment plan, Hill said. We have had a mess with transportation that we have tried for weeks and weeks to resolve.
Hill responded to questions about his endorsement of Tata early in his tenure, which began in January 2011. At that time, Hill said, Tata was successful at calming the waters on the troubled board.
At this point, it was my opinion and that of the majority of the members of the board that he might not be the right person to lead the board, Hill said.
The issue remained a hot one Wednesday, with public figures and others keeping the phone lines and email boxes busy with reaction to the firing.
I think the man got a raw deal, said Arvin F. Dixon, 76, who lives just outside of Rolesville. I think the school board should have been working together and taking care of our tax money like they ought to be.