Tedesco officially out of public life - for now

kjahner@newsobserver.comDecember 27, 2013 

— John Tedesco has stepped down, but he certainly hasn’t stepped away. The now-former school board member did not seek re-election this fall, so his term came to an end at last week’s meeting after four years during which he blew up bridges he later managed to start rebuilding.

He came in “elbows out” in 2009 but said he learned the difference between campaign and governance. That sense of conviction, righteousness and confidence remain conspicuous. Yet he leaves behind even opposition that can at least respect him.

And as he steps away to tend to work and family, the Garner Republican still has an eye on a political future – in particular the state superintendent position he challenged for and lost in 2012.

“It is my intention, if my life is there and Lord willing, to take a look at how I can best serve the community, apply my skills, resources and talents to help the community,” Tedesco said.

In 2009, the New Jersey transplant became part of a new Republican majority in the typically Democrat-controlled Wake County Board of Education, despite not having experience in education or kids at the time. He pushed toward neighborhood schools with them. Opponents on the left accused them of effectively promoting segregation after decades of efforts to keep poverty levels at each school below a threshold. Rhetoric flared.

“John will freely admit that he came in with his elbows out. That did not help many situations,” said school board member Jim Martin.

Tedesco gave fiery speeches to tea party groups calling diversity “social engineering” and was later lampooned on “The Colbert Report.” He called board member Debra Goldman a “prom queen” after she broke with the GOP majority to sink his assignment plan and defended himself against accusations of racism by saying he’s dated minorities.

But he would ultimately fail to fit a single-minded, paint-by-number partisan mold.

“I think John had better understanding and deeper commitment to the education of students than his (Republican) colleagues,” said Martin, a Democrat.

Rebuilding bridges

Tedesco understands why many found him arrogant at first. He learned from mistakes. But he doesn’t name any of his views that changed. He instead frames his evolution as learning how to cooperate and present his ideas better. For example, his 2010 neighborhood schools plan didn’t fail because it was wrong; he simply went about it wrong when he attacked the diversity policy that swelled student commute times instead of simply changing transportation policy commute time goals.

“Who’s opposed to diversity? That’s like saying I don’t like sunshine or kittens. But structurally the policy wasn’t working as well,” Tedesco said. That’s not deceptive, he said, just less divisive: “My goal was that kids aren’t on buses an hour and a half and we weren’t wasting millions of dollars on transportation.”

The son of a mill worker from low-income Pittsburgh neighborhoods insists on his support for poor and minority students, and former colleagues back his claim. Christine Kushner, current school board chair, called him “affable and engaging” and said he learned a lot. Anne McLaurin, a Democrat serving during his first two years, said she believes Tedesco “cared very much for the underprivileged children.”

But McLaurin didn’t buy Tedesco’s interpretation that he merely was explaining himself wrong. For her, Tedesco was “scripted” at first, just a part of a new majority that entered with an agenda and no regard for the opposition.

“He was not always open to ideas that were not handed to him. But he got much better at doing that,” McLaurin said. “I thought he did grow more than the other ones did.”

In 2011, a Democratic majority regained power and undid an implemented choice plan Tedesco had backed after his plan failed. But he proudly touts lowering suspension rates and upping the number of underprivileged students in advanced courses and takes pride in the active efforts he made to be an effective minority-party member. He also supported this year’s school construction bond.

But to Tedesco, education is not D vs. R, but status quo vs. reform. Schools need reform, he said.

Martin also decries partisanship but called Tedesco’s alternative dichotomy “simplistic.”

“John is quicker to support (ideas labeled ‘school reform’) and has a tendency to call those who oppose it a status-quo traditionalist,” the N.C. State chemistry professor said.

Making another run

Just three years after his rise from obscurity, Tedesco won the GOP primary but lost the 2012 race for state superintendent to incumbent June Atkinson by 8.5 percentage points.

That margin gives him confidence for 2016. He said Atkinson’s incumbency explained most of the gap – and he thinks she may not run again. Atkinson outspent him 4-to-1, another gap he expects to narrow in his second statewide campaign.

While he voiced respect for the career educator, he thinks he could do better – right now.

“I thought she’d be challenged to work with a Republican government,” Tedesco said. “You’ve got to have someone at the table that the decision makers are going to listen to.”

He said he could also consider a return to the school board. He said that he declined prodding to run for a 2014 state House seat and that he doesn’t like the two-year constant-campaign calendar.

Respect aside, he doesn’t have his Democratic former colleagues’ vote for superintendent.

“I would not want to see that happen,” Martin said. “If you haven’t implemented a curriculum, if you haven’t taught in a classroom, you are going to devise a set of policies that may look good on paper, but they’re not going to work.”

Despite his critics, Tedesco retains faith in his ability to improve without changing his core principles.

“The guy I am today is better than the guy I was five years ago,” Tedesco said. “The guy five years from now, I’m looking forward to meeting him; that guy is going to be awesome.”

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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