Wake weighing education experience for superintendent

khui@newsobserver.comDecember 19, 2012 

After 20 months of leadership by a former general, the Wake County school system will likely see a career educator as its next chief.

With the Wake school board expected to start the search this week for a new superintendent, members of the Democratic majority say their preference would be to hire a person with an education background. Democratic members who ousted Tony Tata say they want someone who will avoid repeating the problems they blame on Tata’s lack of education experience.

“If you’ve been in the classroom, you have a very different voice than someone who hasn’t been there,” said Democratic board member Jim Martin. “You have more credibility with teachers.”

But Republican board members who hired Tata point to improved test scores and new academic programs he implemented. They say his experience as a retired U.S. Army general served him well in Wake. And they worry that the board majority won’t give fair consideration to non-educators who could do a good job leading the state’s largest school district.

“They need to cast a wide net,” said Republican board member Debra Goldman, who headed the search committee in 2010 that recommended Tata. “I would just hope that they would be willing to hear from every candidate who is qualified.”

An old divide

The arguments taking shape are the same ones that took place in 2010 when the board searched for a successor to Superintendent Del Burns. He resigned because, he said, he couldn’t carry out the policies of the Republican board majority. The difference now is that the board is controlled by Democrats, who were in the minority in 2010 when Republicans eliminated the requirement that the superintendent be an educator.

Nationally, most superintendents are career educators who started as classroom teachers and rose through the ranks to become administrators. But some districts have turned to people who spent most or all of their careers in other fields, such as the business world or the military.

Tata was hired in December 2010 after having spent 28 years in the military. He attended the Broad Superintendents Academy, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that trains noneducators to work in school districts, and worked 18 months as chief operating officer of the D.C. Public Schools.

Tata won praise in some quarters and complaints from others.

Officially, Tata was fired Sept. 25 without cause, receiving $253,625 in a severance package. But Democratic board members have cited issues such as their relationship with him, the bus problems that affected thousands of students at the start of the school year and complaints from some central office administrators and principals about Tata’s leadership style.

Stephen Gainey, Wake’s assistant superintendent for human resources, was named interim superintendent last week until a permanent hire is made. Gainey, who has been acting superintendent since Tata’s firing, said he hasn’t decided whether to apply for the permanent position.

Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said that the school board needs to run an open, transparent and comprehensive search to get community buy-in for the new superintendent. The Chamber had supported Tata and expressed disappointment when he was fired.

“There were a lot of people who were not happy to see the superintendent go,” Schmitt said

Two philosophies clash

In terms of comprehensiveness, Democratic board chairman Keith Sutton said there’s no talk about changing board policy to require once again the superintendent to be an educator. But the change wouldn’t be needed if board members go with their preference of hiring an educator.

Sutton said he’s looking for a person who is an experienced educator, an experienced manager who has run large enterprises and who is virtually apolitical. He wants the new superintendent to be able to help board members work together.

“Coming into a situation like this with a divided board, the expectations to bring this board together, help this board move forward and this community to heal is going to take someone with that kind of experience,” Sutton said.

Martin, the board member, said you wouldn’t expect someone to run a bank who has never worked in one before. He said the same applies to a superintendent who is charge of the education of 150,000 students

“I would want to see somebody who has experience teaching in a classroom,” he said.

Democratic board vice chairwoman Christine Kushner said she’d also prefer a superintendent who has been a classroom teacher and worked in a school district that’s comparable to Wake, which is the nation’s 16th largest district. But she said she won’t exclude applicants who don’t have those experiences.

“I just want someone who will strengthen public education,” Kushner said. “I don’t have any preconceptions.”

Republican board member John Tedesco said that while he values education experience, it would be a mistake to limit the search to only educators. He said they’re hiring a chief administrative officer, not a classroom teacher.

“You don’t learn how to build a $1.4 billion budget at the same time you learn third-grade instructional reading,” Tedesco said. “I would hope that we don’t limit ourselves to one particular skill set that may not necessarily be relevant.”

Republican board member Chris Malone said it’s ultimately going to be what the Democratic members want that counts.

“It’s really going to depend on how much experience they want in the educational field and how much experience in the corporate or military field they can tolerate,” said Malone, who is resigning Dec. 31 to take a seat in the General Assembly.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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