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. His sense of conviction, righteousness and confidence remain conspicuous, yet he leaves behind opposition that despite philosophical disagreements largely respects him as someone who evolved into a pragmatist who has all students’ interests at heart.
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 lost as a challenger 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, sitting in his office at the appraisal company where he directs marketing for his brother, the CEO. “It’s just my passion that I’ve had my whole life.”
In 2009 Tedesco was part of a campaign that looked to wrest control of the Wake County Board of Education from Democrats who had long been entrenched as the majority party, campaigning to push Wake County toward neighborhood schools after decades under a model aiming for social-economic consistency between schools. Opponents on the left accused the Republican-led majority of effectively re-instituting segregation and rhetoric flared frequently.
“John will freely admit that he came in with his elbows out. That did not help many situations,” said school board member Jim Martin, who was elected in 2011 and regularly attended meetings during the vitriolic two years prior.
The blunt New Jersey transplant, who moved to the county in 2006, 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 ultimately proved himself to be more than the single-minded, paint-by-number partisan stereotype.
“I think John had better understanding and deeper commitment to the education of students than his (Republican) colleagues,” Martin, a Democrat, said. “John was a guy I could work with.”
Tedesco’s lack of experience with education and children of his own in 2009 did not assuage his confidence.
“Earlier on, when I was learning to be a little more effective on how to communicate that to folks, it was easy to see that as maybe arrogant,” Tedesco said.
Tedesco avoids naming positions that have shifted. He frames his shift as learning how to find common ground and work with people as well as learn how to present ideas better. For example, he said his neighborhood schools plan failed in 2010 not because the idea was wrong, but because he didn’t explain or promote it correctly. (He also said he underestimated the context of racial issues in the South. To him, he said, desegregation was a fact of life in the North, not a merely decades old practice.)
Rather than talk about striking the diversity policy and its goal of not breaching a poverty threshold at any school, Tedesco said he should have instead aimed to alter the transportation policy, reducing a max travel-time goal from 90 minutes to an hour. He then wouldn’t touch the “lightning rod” of diversity.
“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. “It’s not deceptive (to frame it differently). It would have been less divisive. My goal was that kids aren’t on buses on an hour and a half and we weren’t wasting millions of dollars on transportation.”
Though some vilified his efforts as a way to keep poor students, often minorities, from richer areas and vice versa, Tedesco convinced board opponents of his good intentions.
“I think he cared very much for the underprivileged children,” said Anne McLaurin, a Democrat who served with him on the board during his first two years. “He didn’t always vote in terms of assignments that would be helpful for them,” she added.
The man who grew up the son of a mill worker in low-income Pittsburgh neighborhoods does not mince words in talking about the importance of good education for the poor. He proudly touts helping reduce suspension rates and upping the number of underprivileged students put into advanced courses. He said he’ll talk to a liberal audience about saving kids from the school-to-prison pipeline before telling a conservative audience that skimping on an education costing less than $10,000 now could cost them $35,000 in incarceration later.
McLaurin said Tedesco always cared. But she didn’t completely buy that he merely was explaining himself wrong. For her, Tedesco was “scripted” at first, and evolved after the new majority entered with an agenda and little regard for opposition or even parliamentary procedure.
“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.”
Majority to minority
In 2011, after two years of school board combat, a Democratic majority took over and undid an implemented choice plan Tedesco had backed.
Tedesco, by necessity, had to work with Democrats. But to Tedesco, education is not partisan but status quo vs. reform, and he believes schools need reform. He said he hopes his replacement, Democrat Monika Johnson-Hostler, will retain what he sees as some reformist traits and not be “roped into the collective thinking” of some.
Martin worked with Tedesco on the suspension issue among others, and credits him for seeing the importance of and supporting Common Core Standards while other Republicans undermine it.
He too decries partisanship in education, but called Tedesco’s alternative dichotomy “simplistic” and his reform inadequate as long as schools are under-resourced.
“John is quicker to support (ideas labeled ‘school reform’), and has a tendency to call those who oppose it as status-quo traditionalist,” the N.C. State chemistry professor said. “I’ve been in education long enough to see reform after reform that have been supposed to fix everything cause enough problems.”
Tedesco also joined the Democratic-led board in supporting the school bond this year. But he threatened to withdraw his support when a couple of projects in his hometown – long-awaited renovations of a high school and elementary school – were taken off. They were put back on, and he blamed not having had Garner-supporting leadership on the board during past bonds for the fact that they’d fallen by the wayside as long as they did.
The Northerner expresses major hometown loyalty despite his short tenure in what he regards an incredibly welcoming community. He bought his first home there and called it “the first place where I learned I can have roots and wings.”
“Good time to be still”
Tedesco, three years after rising from obscurity to help kick a hornets nest, proved nothing if not ambitious, making a run for state superintendent.
“I did it on a shoestring budget, working my tail off,” Tedesco said.
He lost by about 8.5 percent, which he said gives him great confidence for 2016. He’ll have less of a fund-raising disadvantage (Atkinson out-raised him nearly 4 to 1) and more state-wide name recognition in a race typically tough on Republicans.
He also said Atkinson’s incumbency explained most of the gap, and he thinks she may not run again. While he voiced respect for the career educator, he thinks he could be doing a more effective job than her 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, who they’re going to be willing to work with and not try to marginalize for political reasons.”
With local and state level education political structures in flux due to legislation, Tedesco called it a “good time to sit and be still.” He said he’d also consider a return to the the school board if proposed legislation eliminating the superintendent position gains traction. He declined prodding to run for a 2014 state House seat, and doesn’t like the two-year, constantly-campaigning cycle. Despite a headline-grabbing past he said he doesn’t like soundbite politics.
Though he’s earned their respect, his Democratic opponents warn against him heading education statewide.
“I would not want to see that happen,” Martin said. “You’ve got to have experience in a classroom. 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 as a person and leader. He said he’s better than he was in 2009. And he said he will continue 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,” Tedesco said.