RALEIGH — Wake County school board Chairman Kevin Hill said Friday that former Superintendent Tony Tata’s autocratic leadership style created a culture of fear among school system employees.
Amid complaints in the past week from Tata supporters who think the superintendent’s firing was unfair, Hill and other members of the school board’s Democratic majority have been increasingly vocal about their reasons. In a meeting Friday with News & Observer editors and reporters, Hill said the decision wasn’t politically motivated but instead came from the view that Tata wasn’t improving his relationship with the board and staff.
“There are five board members who happen to be Democrats as opposed to five Democratic board members,” Hill said. “If this was political, we picked an awfully stupid time to make the move.”
Tata was hired by the former Republican board majority in December 2010. A Democratic board majority took office after last fall’s elections. All five Democrats voted last week to pay $253,625 to let Tata go, with the four Republicans voting against it.
Republican school board member John Tedesco said Friday that there was a long-running plot to remove Tata.
“It was a battle behind the scenes to get rid of Tata early,” Tedesco said. “We did all we could to stop the political hatchet job.”
But Hill said that if there had been a conspiracy, the board would have fired Tata sooner. The majority was “committed” to working with the superintendent, Hill said.
Hill said the first hint of problems for him took place after he told Tata in May that board members were concerned about the new choice-based student assignment plan and were moving toward telling staff to develop an address-based plan. Hill said Tata told him the change would be a good idea. But in June, after the board majority passed the directive to go to the new plan, Tata told reporters he was surprised by the vote.
“That’s the trust issue,” Hill said.
Tata did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
Board members grew increasingly worried after hearing parental complaints about the choice plan and about a plan to take school buses off the road to save money, Hill said. The start of the school year was marred by problems with buses arriving late or not at all for thousands of students.
Hill also said board members became concerned that Tata wasn’t using tax dollars wisely. For example, he said Tata couldn’t provide answers about where the funding was coming from for new academic programs that the superintendent backed. Hill said that money may have been more effective elsewhere.
“What didn’t we offer because of that?” Hill said. “Maybe that’s why we’re only vacuuming schools two days a week.”
Hill said he’s calling for an outside independent audit of the district, which he called standard whenever there’s a leadership change. He said he’s not expecting the audit to find any malfeasance.
The board chairman also said he had been increasingly hearing from school staff members that Tata’s leadership style didn’t allow them to voice disagreements. Tata’s training as an Army brigadier general didn’t prepare him for working in the collaborative environment of a school system, Hill said.
“They’re afraid to speak up, fearing they may be the next to be asked to leave the school system,” Hill said.
The deciding factor, Hill said, was on Sept. 17 when Tata fired Don Haydon, who oversaw buses as chief facilities and operations officer. School officials previously had said Haydon resigned. Haydon did not return calls Friday.
Though Hill said majority board members were privately raising their concerns to Tata, Hill was publicly praising the superintendent. He acknowledged Friday that this confused some people about Tata’s firing. But he said it was his job to be a public booster of Tata even as he raised issues in person to him.
“It’s my role to put the best face on the school system as possible,” Hill said.
Tata acknowledged his direct leadership style in a Friday column in The News & Observer in which he wrote, “I could not justify many years of debates over issues while every day our most vulnerable children languished.” Tata also pointed to increases in test scores, the starting of several new programs and the raising of the accreditation status of the high schools during his 20-month tenure.
Also in the column, Tata wrote that “my personnel file contains only positive information.”
Hill said Tata’s personnel file contains his latest performance review from August, in which majority board members listed their concerns. Even before that, Hill said, they had given Tata enough warning throughout the spring and summer to change.
Tata notes in his column that “as the termination agreement stated, my departure was truly without cause.”
Hill said the board attorney advised him that firing Tata “for cause” would likely cost as much in legal fees as it would just to pay Tata one year’s salary as part of his severance agreement. “I don’t fault his effort and commitment,” Hill said. “But there’s got to be a strong working relationship with his team and a strong working relationship with the board, and that was absent.”
Tedesco, the Republican board member, said Hill “doth protest too much” to “justify an unjustifiable firing.” “It’s cowardly and shows lack of class for him to say these things about Tata, who served the county well,” Tedesco said.
Republican school board member Chris Malone said Tata’s problem was that he refused to bow to the politics of the Democratic majority.
“I understand they want their own guy,” Malone said. “But there’s a time and a place for that. This wasn’t the time and the place.”
There’s also been backlash from 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. Coble said the panels won’t meet until the school board first commits to specific projects and a completed school assignment plan.
Hill said the school board and commissioners need to set partisanship aside. “It’s incumbent upon the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education to slow down their rhetoric,” Hill said. “Whether we build schools or not shouldn’t be a political decision.”
Hill said he wants to hold off beginning the superintendent search until after the November elections to see whether three Republican board members running for state office – Tedesco, Malone and Debra Goldman – are elected.
Hill said he hopes to have a permanent superintendent in place by July 1. He said that’s one of the reasons he’d recommend delaying the school bond referendum to November 2013. “I’ve heard so many times in the past 10 to 12 days that a bond will never pass,” Hill said. “I don’t believe that. I believe the commissioners will recognize the importance of it.”