Wake school board, public trade barbs over Tata's firing

Schools officials get earful of ire as they defend Tata’s ouster

khui@newsobserver.comOctober 2, 2012 

— One week after Wake County Superintendent Tony Tata’s ouster, Democratic school board members on Tuesday stepped up their criticism of Tata in reaction to heated backlash to the firing they endorsed.

Barbs flew both from board members and speakers in a public comment period of a board meeting, with Tata’s supporters citing the loss of a strong leader and his severance pay of $253,625.

Chairman Kevin Hill started Tuesday’s school board meeting with an apology for a disruptive start of school, then immediately reaffirmed the board majority’s decision to fire Tata.

“The superintendent came to us with little experience and made many mistakes,” Hill said. “The citizens of Wake County want and need a board of education that puts students first, all students.”

Republican board members and a procession of Tata supporters during the public comment period called the Democratic board members who voted to fire Tata “despicable,” “underhanded,” “fiscally irresponsible” and “cowardly.”

Democratic board members said Tata had lost the trust of board members. They accused Tata of having a harsh, dismissive management style, failing to follow board directives and of repeating problems after warnings in his annual review.

“A complete air of suspicion had permeated the collaborative working relationship,” said Susan Evans, a Democratic board member.

The assessment from Republican board member Debra Goldman differed radically. Goldman accused Evans and Hill of making “slanderous comments” about Tata.

“I am beside myself on this,” Goldman said. “Mr. Tata was fired without cause. It says it twice in the termination contract.”

Speakers largely pro-Tata

More than two dozen speakers signed up for the public comment session, which was dominated by pro-Tata voices. They pointed to academic gains made by the district and said Tata was willing to listen to parents.

“I can’t recall you,” said Connelly Simmons, a speaker. “I can’t sue you. I can only offer you one thing: my utter disgust.”

Cary resident Kathleen Brennan, a co-founder of the parent group Wake CARES, said Tata had conducted himself with dignity and proved himself to be a good leader. Democratic board members have lied to voters and maligned parents, she said.

“You should consider tendering your own resignations,” Brennan said to a loud round of applause.

Rene Herrick, a former Wake County Teacher of the Year, told board members that teachers want Tata back.

“Mr. Tata was our hero,” said Herrick, who noted that she was a Democrat who had voted for Evans last fall. “He brought our district back from being the subject of ridicule and possibly losing our accreditation.”

“You represent your little friends group,” Apex parent Tiffany Birkner said as she angrily confronted Evans.

“(Tata’s) job is not to get along with difficult personalities who are representing a splinter group,” Birkner said in one of several critical references to the Great Schools in Wake Coalition.

Great Schools, a community group that backed Wake schools’ old diversity policy, had criticized Tata during his tenure. Evans and fellow new Democratic board member Christine Kushner had been leaders in Great Schools before they were elected last fall.

GOP commissioners irate

Tata’s firing has also been heavily censured by the Republican majority on the Wake County Board of Commissioners.

In a letter released Monday, Commissioners Chairman Paul Coble condemned the Democratic school board leadership and canceled meetings planned between the two boards to discuss the next school bond referendum.

Before last week’s vote to fire Tata, leaders of both boards had met and tentatively set meetings to begin Oct. 12.

Now, Coble said his board will not meet to develop a school construction program for voters’ approval next year, unless the school board first commits to specific projects and a completed school assignment plan.

“There may be tensions between the two boards,” Hill said. “But we’re all adults. We will work it out.”

Tata, a retired Army brigadier general and chief operating officer of the D.C. Public Schools, was hired by the former Republican board majority in December 2010. But Democrats regained the majority of the officially nonpartisan board after last fall’s election.

Tension between Tata and Democratic members finally erupted last week when he was fired a little less than 20 months into his tenure.

Hill opened Tuesday’s board meeting by saying they could have handled the firing a little better. He then proceeded to level complaints against Tata, who wanted to stay.

Flare-ups with Tata

Hill said the board has been embroiled in flare-ups with Tata over the spring and summer, including whether teachers should receive merit pay, implementation of the new choice-based student assignment plan and the bus problems at the start of the school year.

He said Tata also implemented new programs without telling board members the costs.

“We did not have the working relationship needed to match the demands of the 16th-largest school system in the country,” Hill said.

Republican school board member John Tedesco questioned why Hill hadn’t said those things publicly before the vote last week.

“I find it tactless and cowardly, Kevin, for you to say these things now,” Tedesco said.

Amid the bickering, the school board began the process of looking for a new permanent superintendent.

The board voted Tuesday to pay Stephen Gainey, the assistant superintendent for human resources, an extra $3,750 a month in salary and travel to fill in as superintendent for 60 days.

Hill said he doesn’t expect problems finding qualified applicants, even with the turmoil.

“Everybody is still pointing to us,” Hill said. “Our schools are still successful.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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