Accrediting group concerned about firing of Tata

Accreditor’s president cites partisan trend

khui@newsobserver.comOctober 15, 2012 

Civil rights and liberal groups that once turned to an accreditation group in their fight against the Wake County school board are now finding that turnabout may be fair play.

Mark Elgart, president of AdvancED, the Georgia-based group that accredits Wake’s high schools, said Monday he’s “troubled” by recent decisions by the school board’s Democratic majority to fire Superintendent Tony Tata and to drop the choice-based student assignment plan. Previously, AdvancED threatened to remove accreditation over the actions of the board’s former Republican majority after a 2010 complaint from the state NAACP.

With AdvancED now looking into a new complaint filed by the Wake County Taxpayers Association, Elgart said he’s worried about the continued trend of major decisions being made along 5-4 partisan lines. Elgart said that these actions could result in Wake remaining under investigation and not getting full accreditation restored to its high schools this year.

“Their actions are concerning to us,” Elgart said. “This could most certainly affect their accreditation.”

Elgart said Wake has been given until Nov. 15 to respond to the allegations made by the association and to give an update on how it’s responding to the earlier NAACP complaint. Rather than open a new investigation, Elgart said, AdvancED is treating the new complaint as a continuation of the original case.

In various media interviews since Tata’s firing, Elgart has praised the former superintendent.

School board Chairman Kevin Hill said Monday he welcomed the chance to explain to AdvancED the reasons for the majority’s actions. He also said he’s not concerned that the actions will negatively affect accreditation.

“I’m more than happy to sit down and talk with them about it,” Hill said. “I think we’ve been very transparent about the whole thing.”

Tata’s firing

On Sept. 25, Tata was fired by the school board in a 5-4 vote with all five Democratic members ousting him. The board majority agreed to pay Tata one year’s salary of $253,625 because no legal grounds were cited for firing him.

Republican board members and Tata’s supporters have railed against the firing. They say Tata helped raise Wake’s test scores and he regularly met with community groups. In response, Democratic board members have been increasingly vocal in justifying the firing, accusing Tata of creating a culture of fear among school staff. They also blame him for problems such as implementation of the choice-based student assignment plan and the bus problems that marred the start of the school year.

Last month, the association, which had criticized AdvancED for investigating the 2010 NAACP complaint, filed its own complaint with the accreditation group accusing the Democratic board majority of mismanaging the school system.

The association announced Monday it had amended the complaint to include Tata’s firing. The association faults the school board majority for discussing the firing behind closed doors and for not allowing a public hearing before the vote.

“The 5-4 partisan vote to dismiss Superintendent Tata during a last-minute closed session meeting has left our school system leaderless,” the associations says in the amended complaint. “This firing was shocking and has had an extremely negative impact on our community and our schools.”

Elgart said it’s not AdvancED’s place to dictate how school systems handle the hiring and firing of employees. But he said it can raise concerns about whether it will create a cycle in which the superintendent is fired every time the board majority changes hands.

Elgart said good governance would involve finding more than a simple majority along partisan lines for major decisions.

“They should be governing and not legislating,” Elgart said. “Legislating does not result in decisions that are in the best interests in the parents and students of the school system.”

‘Warned’ and ‘advised’

Elgart’s concerns about the new board echo the concerns that the group made in a March 2011 report looking into the complaint filed by the NAACP. In that report, AdvancED criticized the Republican board majority for making 5-4 decisions on major issues such as dropping the use of socioeconomic diversity from the student assignment policy.

“Board members joined forces with current board member Ron Margiotta to launch a premeditated act that resulted in destabilizing the school system and community,” according to the 2011 report.

As a result, AdvancED lowered the accreditation of Wake’s high schools to “warned” status, meaning AdvancED had identified serious problems that it felt needed addressing.

Wake had made several changes requested by AdvancED, resulting in the accreditation status being upgraded this year to “advised,” meaning the district was making progress in addressing the problems. AdvancED praised Tata’s work in helping put Wake one step below getting back to full accreditation.

It’s been a priority to maintain the accreditation of Wake’s high schools because of fears that losing it could make it harder for students to get into college or get some scholarships and financial aid.

“A common theme during interviews was the significance of the superintendent’s influence on the direction of the system in providing governance and leadership focused on student learning and system effectiveness,” according to the January AdvancED report. “Described as a ’calmer’ board, stakeholders attributed this change unequivocally to the superintendent’s leadership.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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