September 27, 2012

Wheeler: The school board from another planet

With this week’s decision to fire Superintendent Tony Tata, the Wake school board continues to boldly go in a baffling direction.

You know that the careening Starship Wake County has turbo-blasted into a whole new dimension of absurdity when you find yourself agreeing with John Tedesco’s assessment of things.

“Epic failure” were the on-the-money words he used to describe his fellow school board members’ vote this week to fire Superintendent Tony Tata.

Well, that covers E and F. Let’s go back a letter and find some D words, too: disappointing, damaging, distracting.

Barring some undisclosed gross malfeasance on Tata’s part, getting rid of the superintendent at this critical moment is just destructive. The board is in the middle of creating a third student assignment plan in three years and getting ready to try to sell to the public a $1.2 billion bond issue for school construction needs.

Within 24 hours of Tata’s firing, some Wake County commissioners were already making noises about how hard it will be to partner with a leaderless school system on the bond issue now.

Even the folks who were never enamored with hiring a former general as superintendent can’t be all that happy with having the waters all a-churn again. Sometimes you have to steady the ship before you can head boldly in a direction, and here we are yet again in the middle of a hurricane.

What winds are blowing here?

The five Democrats who voted to oust Tata, who was hired by a Republican-majority board 20 months ago, pinky-swear that politics had nothing to do with it. Appearances, however, can be everything.

Two days after the vote, after initially citing only “personnel” matters for the firing, they finally gave an explanation: Tata had agreed with Republican board members that parents should be able to see parts of the assignment plan that the board hadn’t vetted.

Are we supposed to think that the data release was a Republican plot to undermine the plan?

Trees, forests and weeds

Wake County Republicans did Tata no favors in calling their faithful to support him by warning that “radical extremists” had taken over the board. Now the GOP has threatened to lead opposition to the bond referendum – because packed-to-the-gills and dilapidated schools will really show those Democrats!

How demoralizing – hmm, another D word – that partisanship has so infested what is supposed to be a nonpartisan body focused on educating children.

Last week, the board’s arguments over whether to release those draft assignment details showed the divide clearly: Democrats are focused on the forest. Republicans are looking at the trees.

Or the weeds, to use Democrat Susan Evans’ unfortunate terminology.

“If the attendance maps have been given, the public will focus in the weeds in that minutiae and not on the framework,” she said.

‘Minutiae’? Not really

Perhaps the Democrats on today’s board should revisit what led to the Republican takeover to begin with. Telling parents that where their child goes to school is the “minutiae” seems to smack of the arrogance and unresponsiveness to parents that many voters cited in 2009.

To be sure, Tata has made some mistakes, clumsily reprimanding Democratic board members over ties to a schools advocacy group, for one, although we may find he was right to question them.

For the bus fiasco – and it was a fiasco of the largest order – it’s hard to know where to place the blame given that, at the issue’s core, there were fewer buses on the road so we could have more teachers in our classrooms.

Tata’s current assignment plan has plenty of problems that need tweaking, but two Democrats voted for it, seeming to prove that Tata had some rancor-calming abilities at some point.

Under Tata’s leadership, the county has recorded its highest achievement gains ever for low-income high school students, reduced the number of schools below 70 percent proficiency from 26 to 13, improved services for 20,000 special ed students and added 15 STEM programs to high-needs schools, most notably in Eastern Wake. Teachers have gotten raises.

So why dump Tata now? Given that the Democrat-held seats are safe for three more years, maybe they hope we’ll just forget this outrageous turbulence by then.

I fear, however, that what they’ve done is lock in the Republican-charted course to Planet Partisanship – from which we will never return.

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