Fallout alert

The clumsy firing of superintendent Tony Tata can’t be allowed to affect learning opportunities.

September 27, 2012 

At best, it was the kind of biting, mischievous comment for which Wake County commissioners chairman Paul Coble has become known. At worst, it was a not-too-veiled threat against the county school board and the school system itself – along with the people those schools serve.

Following the clumsy and inappropriate firing Tuesday of Wake schools superintendent Tony Tata after 20 months on the job, and with a school bond discussion looming between commissioners and the school board, Coble said, “The question I’ve got to ask is why would we vote to give a billion dollars to a group of people who have no leadership, can’t get a plan in place and stick to it, and don’t really know what direction they’re headed in.”

That statement could be interpreted as possibly putting in doubt commissioners’ approval of a billion-dollar bond referendum for school construction to answer continuing needs created by growth. The Republican-run commissioners’ board certainly resents the dismissal of Tata, who was hired by a GOP-majority school board.

That majority, after a couple of years of chaotic and destructive rule in their attempts to do away with economic diversity as a factor in school assignments, was repudiated in last year’s election and lost control.

Up in the air

The new Democratic majority has been wrestling what to do about the former board’s assignment plan, which has not had a smooth debut as it took effect this school year. Substantive changes are almost certain. But after hitting rough patches with some board members, and after a start-of-school busing glitch created mass confusion, Tata seemed to have steadied the ship. Under him the system also made strides with accreditation and innovation.

Given that the board majority hasn’t been entirely comfortable with a superintendent on the record as a political conservative and hired by a board majority with its own ideological agenda, it appears tensions had been building. Now, the board’s Democrats must defend an action reminiscent of the tempestuous majority they replaced.

Unfortunately, there is a threat that the fallout from Tata’s firing could spill over into the debate on the bond issue – a critical need, and one that Tata has strongly recognized.

How to build back

So the board majority now has two challenges. One, it has to open a dialogue with commissioners emphasizing that political disputes must exit center stage and that unity and support for a bond issue must be the common purpose of both boards. That means a serious dialogue with Coble and other commissioners. Children must come first, and that’s going to mean making sure there is adequate room, in areas where that room needs to be added, for new students and those they’ll join.

Overcrowded schools and classrooms should be anathema to Republican and Democrat alike. Effective learning is not a partisan issue, period. All must share that goal in a system that is North Carolina’s largest (150,000 students) and that continues to grow steadily as families move to Wake County, attracted by the quality of life and, yes, good schools.

The second challenge for the school board is to regain the public confidence it may have lost with this decision, and in the way it was made. The board majority must try to recondition itself in the image of the school boards that used to reign as nonpartisan entities where the political affiliation of members wasn’t even known to a lot of people.

That is as it should be. Angry, divisive, partisan politics is a diversion for a school board and not a constructive backdrop for responsible decision-making. This board must acknowledge it, and then rise above it.

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