Midtown Raleigh News

Tata backs down from ethics accusations

Wake County schools superintendent Tony Tata apologized Friday to school board members Susan Evans and Christine Kushner for suggesting that they had violated ethical principles, according to a joint statement they released Friday afternoon.

The statement came after a week of controversy in which Tata scolded Evans and Kushner for their membership in the Great Schools in Wake Coalition community organization. The group has opposed much of the new student assignment plan that Tata has backed.

In publicly available emails, Tata called the members’ ties “potential serious ethics violations.”

Tata, Evans, Kushner, school board Chairman Kevin Hill and board attorney Ann Majestic met Friday to craft the statement, which they called “a serious, frank, and constructive conversation to discuss events of the past week.”

“We all agreed that Ms. Evans and Ms. Kushner have not violated any ethical rules or principles in their work as board members,” the statement said. “Mr. Tata has apologized to these board members for suggesting otherwise and has acknowledged that he should have handled his concerns in a different manner.

“We recognize the importance of a positive working relationship between the Board and the Superintendent and are all committed to working together on behalf of our students and our community.”

The statement represented a significant change of direction for Tata, who had said he was acting to ward off criticisms of the 147,000-student system’s governance. Both an accreditation agency and an investigative unit of the U.S. Department of Education are monitoring Wake schools, with the actions of the board and superintendent under scrutiny.

As the flap escalated, Evans and Kushner noted that as elected officials, they are free to associate with any group they choose.

Elected in a Democratic sweep last fall, the board members had said they have little current involvement with Great Schools in Wake, though both appeared as honorees in late January when an award was presented to the group.

The board’s ethics policy prohibits a board member from having his or her positions dictated by any one person or group.

Friction shows in email

Tata, a retired brigadier general, was hired to head the system in late 2009 and started work in January 2010. He has been given credit for calming a contentious atmosphere that prevailed as the majority-Republican board that hired him worked to change the system’s longstanding practice of using diversity as a factor in student assignment.

After the election of the Democratic-backed majority in the fall, four Republican incumbents and Tata had seen the assignment plan crafted under the former leadership passed into action.

But behind the scenes, a review of hundreds of Wake County school system emails shows, a high level of suspicion and distrust existed among school board members and staff.

The heated exchanges raised questions about the nine-member board’s ability to work effectively together on a budget for next school year and on the final weeks of the assignment plan’s implementation. Friday’s statement addressed the desires of all parties working as a team.

Iqbal Singh, a retired Indian army officer and law professor who has taught at Duke and N.C. State universities, said earlier Friday that he had been troubled by the high level of contention among the Wake board and staff.

“These are the formative years for the students; they are not university students,” Singh said. “They would benefit from a very neutral, understanding, give-and-take sort of approach.”

Though couched in mostly polite terms and officialese, many of the e-mails make plain the friction. The new board took office in December, and by January, Tata was writing to Hill and co-chairman Keith Sutton about new Democratic board member Jim Martin’s conduct at meetings and about reassignment requests from Evans that went to staff members and Tata at the same time.

“With individual board members making requests such as these below and the rather aggressive interrogation by Dr. Martin yesterday, I think we need to have a discussion with the entire board about communications protocols and expectations,” Tata wrote.

The note came after Martin had a hard-edged exchange with Tata, in which Martin wanted more information about how the system would address the needs of high-achieving students pushed out of current magnet schools by neighborhood children who previously had been assigned elsewhere.

Parents join in

Evans had written on behalf of parents who had requested transfers:

“I do not think an adjustment of this sort requires discussion at a Board meeting, but feel this is something that the Assignment staff should be able to deal with. I would like to have it considered sooner than later, while we are in the midst of the choice selection round,” Evans wrote to the assignment staff.

The board members didn’t have just each other and Tata to contend with. Parents and activists also were keeping the cyber lines hot.

“Do you feel it is ethical for the new Board members (and possibly you and others) to be meeting privately to discuss and deliberate on school issues and decisions that may be implemented once in an official capacity?” wrote Alison Backhouse, a Cary resident and longtime activist, about a meeting that new board members had in December with Michael Alves, the consultant who helped craft the new assignment plan.

Hill replied: “Nope! That would be a violation of the open meetings law ... Which is why this meeting did not involve discussions and deliberations on school issues and making decisions that may be implemented.”

Tata found defenders in Republicans Chris Malone and Deborah Prickett.

“Thanks Superintendent Tata for clarifying this information,” Prickett wrote after a flurry of emails over Martin’s criticism of Tata for releasing information to media at a time when he and other new members were in mandated training. “I agree that you and staff are doing a fantastic job in providing the board with timely, accurate, and relevant information.”

Former vice chairman John Tedesco said in an interview Friday, before the joint statement was released, that board members have the right to join political or community organizations. But they should put board concerns first, Tedesco said, adding that he would recuse himself from any action that touched on matters he deals with as head of an education-reform group.

Tedesco noted that Tata’s arrival had initially calmed down board tensions. Will cooler heads again prevail?

“I’m hopeful,” Tedesco said. “I know there are a lot of concerns out there that have to be dealt with. I hope people can put down the bickering.”