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Ford: The battle Tata couldn't win

September 30, 2012 

Campaign consultant Perry Woods, who often pops up to assist Democratic candidates hereabouts, does his best to rebut the notion that the firing of Wake County school superintendent Tony Tata was an exercise in partisanship.

In a letter that we ran yesterday, Woods – noting he had advised all five of the Democrats who won seats on the school board last fall and who now have told Tata to make himself scarce – said that from a partisan political standpoint, the timing was wrong.

We’ll take Woods’ narrow point. Why rile the voters by firing a popular and reasonably successful figure like Tata in the midst of a high-stakes election campaign in which your party is fighting tooth and nail for advantage up and down the ballot?

But Tata’s firing, just like his hiring, obviously was colored by politics with a partisan twist. Before coming to Wake, Tata had flaunted his Republican preferences, and he was selected by a board, even though it’s officially nonpartisan, that was seeking to use school issues to advance GOP interests. Three of those Republican board members are even running for higher office this fall.

It must have been hard for the board’s Democrats to view Tata as someone who could be counted upon to get with their program. In their eyes, ousting the superintendent surely was a bold effort to move Wake’s school system toward the kind of executive leadership it needs and deserves.

Yet in explaining to the community how and why Tata fell short, it’s the board’s majority that fell short. At least, when its initially stated reasons were weighed against the ensuing disruption and climate of recrimination.

Chairman Kevin Hill and Vice Chairman Keith Sutton spoke at length in response to reporters’ questions about how the board’s relationship with Tata had turned toxic, as they saw it.

Tata’s “leadership style didn’t leave room for collaborative decision-making and input,” Hill said. “He did a good job initially, but he might not be the right person to lead our system going forward.”

Might not? Hill might have managed to be more persuasive, even as he dinged Tata for allegedly jumping the gun with release of some new student assignment info and for presiding over a “disastrous” school-year startup that had bus routes all bollixed up. (A subordinate resigned, and to some he looked like a scapegoat.)

As to Hill’s supportive comments about Tata when the chairman visited The N&O in late June, he essentially said, that was then and this is now.

Board members said their public criticism of Tata had to be limited under personnel law. Sutton, though, allowed that “relationships with the superintendent became increasingly strained” and “the board’s ability to function was being hampered.” There was a “level of distrust” and “concern about his leadership style ... sometimes too heavy-handed.”

Democrats Jim Martin and Susan Evans, perhaps Tata’s sharpest critics on the board, also defended the firing and denied that partisanship was the cause. Evans faulted Tata for “two major breaches” after he’d been put on notice during an annual performance review. Details, hopefully, to come.

What were they dancing around?

There’s a glimmer in references by Tata’s critics to his military background. The retired Army brigadier general clearly had leadership experience but he wasn’t a career educator, not a member of the club.

And aren’t general officers always heavy-handed types used to barking orders to intimidated underlings? At least it’s a familiar if misleading stereotype.

The Republicans had gambled that Tata’s fairly brief experience as operations chief for the D.C. schools and training by the business-oriented Broad Superintendents Academy would allow him to keep his head above water.

They plainly hoped he would carry out their neighborhood schools agenda even though it risked an upsurge of low-performing schools in lower-income parts of the county.

We were among those skeptical that someone who didn’t rise through the educator ranks was a good pick. Tata turned out, however, to be a good listener and someone who seemed comfortable with the educational terrain.

When the school board flipped back to a Democratic majority last fall, it could have sacked Tata right off the bat. Instead it assigned him to devise yet another plan for ascertaining which schools kids would attend – a plan that would split the difference between approaches favored by the two board factions.

Again, the dispute has hinged on how aggressive the system will be in acting to prevent schools with heavy concentrations of low-performing students.

Here’s betting that the Democrats who for good reason want to ensure diversity as a way to promote student achievement just didn’t trust Tata to make a good-faith effort toward that end. He was hired by the wrong crowd, and he didn’t fit the usual superintendent’s mold.

The Democrats’ action last week may reflect human nature, and it may reflect politics. It wasn’t what Wake County needs when broad support for its public schools – so crucial to young’s people’s success – is both elusive and essential.

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at steve.ford@newsobserver.com.

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