Newly released email shows that former Wake County Superintendent Tony Tata spent his final month in office surrounded by growing distress and concern from school board members and parents over his handling of the school bus problems and student assignment.
More than 3,400 pages of email released this week as part of a public records request by news media organizations, including The News & Observer, show how much the bus fiasco affecting thousands of families was a daily concern during the first month of school. Members of the school board’s Democratic majority blamed Tata for the problems in responses to parents’ messages. Democratic board members also accused Tata of trying to undermine them by prematurely releasing a draft student-assignment plan that members said was flawed.
The documents highlight the tense closing weeks of the 20-month tenure of Tata, who was appointed secretary of transportation by Gov. Pat McCrory in January after being fired by the school board in September. The board agreed to pay $253,625 to buy out Tata’s contract.
“I do have concern about the ‘trust us’ attitude that seems to come from staff,” board member Jim Martin, a Democrat, wrote in a Sept. 19 email to a parent. “This is what left families like yours unassigned, and what led to the transportation fiasco.”
Tata’s supporters insist that Democrats engaged in a purely political move in firing the retired U.S. Army brigadier general.
“They were waiting like a coiled rattlesnake waiting for a moment of vulnerability for purposes of political cover to strike,” then-school board member Chris Malone, a Republican, wrote to a constituent Sept. 25 after the firing.
Tata was hired in late December 2010 by the board’s former Republican majority. While winning praise in many quarters, he also had run-ins with the Democratic majority that took office in fall 2011, culminating in his dismissal.
The messages show relations grew increasingly strained between Tata and the board majority in the weeks leading up to the firing.
The bus fiasco
Heading into the first day of traditional-calendar school on Aug. 27, system officials expected some transportation issues, such as longer rides, because of Tata’s decision – with the board’s approval – to save money by taking 52 of Wake’s 933 buses off the road.
Bus problems on a smaller scale had begun as early as July when the start of year-round schools brought parental complaints about late or missing buses. With traditional-calendar schools opening in three weeks, Tata emailed Bob Snidemiller, the district’s senior director of transportation, to ask what lessons the system could learn from the year-round school situation.
But when the bulk of Wake’s 150,000 students returned to school on Aug. 27, thousands of students had to deal with buses that came late or not at all. While bus issues are typical the first few weeks of school, the severity of the problems and the time it took to fix them was far longer than normal.
“I felt we had prepared well,” Snidemiller wrote Aug. 27. “Everything looks different when you go live with a new system than when you do dry runs without the pressure.”
Calls for an audit
By the end of the day, Aug. 27, Martin, who often clashed with Tata, sent an email calling for an audit of the transportation system, something his fellow Democrats soon joined in requesting.
Martin, like the other Democratic board members, blamed the choice-based student assignment plan that Tata helped developed for aggravating the situation by increasing by 20 percent the number of daily miles buses traveled. Under the choice plan, which was scrapped by the Democrats, families chose from a list of schools instead of being assigned one based on addresses.
“Please do not respond to Dr. Martin’s email or his directives,” Tata wrote Aug. 27 to Snidemiller and to Don Haydon, who later resigned as chief facilities and operations officer over the bus problems.
Frustrated parents bombarded Tata and board members with complaints about the bus service.
“I can not express in polite words how disgusted I am,” Randy Earl wrote to board members on Aug. 28. “Please rethink your priorities and get them straight – IMMEDIATELY!”
As the problems continued, Tata frequently asked staff for updates and comparisons with past years, then passed along their messages to the board that the situation was starting to improve. Tata rode on buses to see the problems firsthand. He would ultimately put most of the 52 sidelined buses back on the road while aggressively trying to hire new drivers to operate them.
“Tuesday will not be perfect, we now add Kindergartners to the buses, but it will be better and by the end of the week we should be where we need to be,” Tata wrote Sept. 3 to the board.
With the situation not improving fast enough for Democratic board members, they complained both at meetings and in email messages that they shouldn’t be blamed for the situation. In a Sept. 6 reply to a constituent, board member Susan Evans, a Democrat, wrote that the majority only approved the bus plan “based on Mr. Tata and Transportation staff assurances.”
Amid calls for the audit, Tata wrote in a Sept. 13 email to then-school board chairman Kevin Hill, a Democrat, that the review should be bipartisan. Positions on the school board are officially nonpartisan, but in recent years both major political parties have aggressively backed candidates and sought majorities on the panel.
“The Vice-Chair leading the audit with a board member from the minority party seems more fair and more likely to yield a non-politicized result, especially since Ms. (Democratic school board member Christine) Kushner, Ms. Evans and Dr. Martin already delivered strongly worded opinions/verdicts last Tuesday, five days into the situation,” Tata wrote.
Hill replied that evening to Tata that he was “frustrated that you reinforce the ‘partisanship’ card while sharing your concerns.” Hill said board members wouldn’t lead the audit.
The board ultimately hired a firm that recommended hiring $2.25 million in additional staff to reorganize the “outmoded” transportation department. The board approved the reorganization last month.
The messages also reveal the distrust that Democratic board members showed toward Tata’s handling of student assignment. After scrapping a Republican-led choice plan, the board majority directed Tata to come up with a new plan for the 2013-14 school year.
System staff developed a draft assignment plan, posting information that seemed to show that dropping the choice plan would lead to mass reassignments. In messages to multiple parents who complained about the draft plan, Martin accused staff of trying to undermine the board by releasing the information.
“I hate to seem suspicious, but at this time I am left with little other than to conclude that some on staff are trying to undermine the Board by creating mass confusion in the community,” Martin wrote in a Sept. 22 reply to a parent. “This is unacceptable.”