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Former workers say Wake schools superintendent Tata led by intimidation

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Some school board members and former administrators allege that former Wake superintendent Tony Tata created a "culture of fear" in the central office. His generous public persona, which earned him wide popularity, contrasted with his threatening private demeanor in the workplace, they say.

In September, the Wake County school board fired Tata in a vote split along party lines. The Democratic majority has been quiet about the reasons for dismissing Tata, who, by many accounts, was a well-liked administrator. But an Indy investigation finds that Tata led the school system's central office using tactics of fear and intimidation, while muffling the advice of his most experienced staff.

Former Wake Schools administrator Meredith Weinstein, who worked under Tata and previous superintendent Donna Hargens, says morale was low during Tata's time.

"People were afraid to come to work, people who had been in it their whole lives," says Weinstein. "There are people there with 20-plus years who came to work fearful they wouldn't be able to work the next day."

Weinstein said Tata was difficult to communicate with. "He had rules for going into his office, not written rules. The first time I went in I was told a list of rules I had to follow. I have a Ph.D. and I'm told I'm not allowed to speak unless spoken to or interrupt him?"

The lack of a clear story line about Tata's firing has led some community members to rally behind a man who seemed to unify Wake County public schools. In a recent board meeting, 2009 Teacher of the Year Rene Herrick, a Democrat who voted for school board member Susan Evans, condemned Tata's firing, calling him a "hero" for teachers.

Harvey Schmitt of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce urged the board majority to keep Tata. Even News & Observer editor John Drescher issued his disapproval in an editorial, calling the move partisan.

In Tata's defense, Drescher wrote of a superintendent who "listened hard" and was "pragmatic and constructive." The column reinforced a half-told narrative of a fable-like character who "brought hope that this community could reach consensus" and provided "a powerful example of effective public leadership."

One part of that narrative is true. Tata provided an example of effective public leadership. Privately though, he is remembered by some administrative staff members as a bully who berated and belittled them.

For example, while Hargens motivated staff through positive reinforcement, Tata controlled his force of administrators by intimidation, Weinstein says.

"When we all went back to school for the first day, Donna [Hargens] gave this motivational speech about how all kids could learn. It was this 'let's get back to it' thing. People were in tears. They were inspired," says Weinstein.

But when Tata delivered his back-to-school speech, she says, "He made a comment I'll never forget: 'I either hired you or I let you keep your job, so remember that when you go into this school year.' It was like he was saying, 'You're replaceable. Remember that.' That's how it went on. 'Don't screw up. You better keep your scores up, because I can get rid of you very easily.'"

Weinstein is not alone in her assessment. Kirsten Justice resigned from her position as a magnet program administrator because of the changes she saw at the central office.

"The basic fear was that if you disagreed with him, you were done," she says. "It's ironic in a school culture that is about inquiry and learning, there would be a culture of, if the general doesn't like you, you're out."

Tata had public and private personae, says one former administrator who spoke on the condition of remaining unnamed. "One for the camera, parents, teachers and school board and a much different one when the cameras were off and only staff were around. He was very disrespectful, downright rude at times to staff members. He would not listen to what people had to say. He was just arrogant."

"I was not pushed out at all," the former administrator goes on. "I did not have to leave. I just didn't want to work in that environment. I didn't have to and wasn't going to spend my remaining years in an uncomfortable employment situation. I jumped at a new opportunity."

But many employees did not leave voluntarily. Of the eight former administrators the Indy interviewed for this story, some were asked to resign, some were reassigned and others took early retirement or were fired.

"The general feeling was that anybody in central office was automatically on the wrong side and that we did not have the intelligence to offer anything that would be useful to him whatsoever," says another former administrator. She chose to remain nameless for fear that some of her former colleagues might experience retribution from current top administrators Tata handpicked.

Tata, who did not return Indy Week's requests for comment, has a conservative record. Moonlighting as a FOX News war pundit and a blogger for Andrew Breitbart's websites, Tata once trumpeted that Sarah Palin "is far more qualified to be president of the United States than the current occupant of the White House."

An inherent distrust of bureaucracy may have led Tata to be suspicious of the central office. Knowledge and talent started disappearing. "There in the beginning, it was a brain drain. There was so much lost," says Justice, of the many who left central office or were transferred.

"It's just a fact that you can make a long list of people who worked at central office on the day before he arrived, and that list has been somewhat reduced," says former administrator David Holdzkom.

According to Wake Schools documents, during Tata's 20 months as superintendent, 39 central service employees left their jobs for various reasons. That number doesn't include employees who were transferred to other departments.

During the 20 months previous to Tata's tenure, 44 employees left central office, but during that time the administration faced several reductions in force. Tata's stint involved no such layoffs.

Holdzkom's situation is emblematic of Tata's firing. Holdzkom was reassigned from his position as an assistant superintendent "without cause"—the same condition in Tata's termination—and is now making roughly $130,000 a year as an English teacher at Millbrook High School. Because Tata didn't have cause to fire Holdzkom, the former superintendent had to place him in a new teaching position earning his adminstrative salary.

"It's not like the rhetoric was new to him," says Holdzkom. "I believe what he said was, 'I don't have any confidence in you going forward.' I knew he didn't have cause and therefore I was not surprised by the limited information I was given."

Many observers have criticized the board for firing Tata without cause and thus having to pay him the severance equivalent of one year's pay, $253,625. Tata's contract would have expired in December 2014.

When Tata took the job in January 2011, he requested meetings to learn about the various departments within the school system. "'Tata data,' we called it," says yet another former administrator who left central office because of Tata's leadership but still works in Wake Schools.

"The purpose behind the meetings seemed to be a good one," says the former administrator. But "every single meeting he'd grill down on one single person who would be bullied, berated and intimidated, and everyone would have to sit there and watch. It was probably the most unprofessional thing I've ever seen in my life."

"He definitely broke our bullying policy," the source said.

Another former administrator remembers identical events.

It didn't take long for the experienced educators who met with Tata to realize it was best to keep quiet. "If you weren't delivering what he already knew or what he wanted to know, then you better not say anything," says Weinstein.

One administrator, who remains in her central office position, saw a kinder side of Tata. She agreed to be interviewed on the condition that she not be named. "He was always especially supportive of me. I certainly didn't operate under fear with him," she said. "All we can do is make judgments based on the interactions we have with someone. I heard things, but I don't go on that."

Many teachers, protected by a firewall of bureaucracy, also like Tata.

"You will find people that worked there, who still work there, who never had any problems or run-ins," says one former mid-level official. "Some people got lucky. Other people didn't fare so well. The higher level you go, the more forceful it might be. Teachers especially, in my experience, they loved him."

Several administrators who were transferred to schools say they are happier in their new roles; working with children again has renewed their sense of purpose. But for those who were dismissed or forced out, the shadow of Tata is hard to shake.

"We didn't know enough to walk in his world," says the female administrator who is no longer with the system. "If you're not careful, it makes you question everything you do. The hurt is still there—the hurt that he caused, not the system itself. There's been so much damage emotionally and psychologically. It concerns me."

It's also a painful memory for Weinstein. "Every time I drive by Crossroads [the site of Wake's central office], I think about it. I went into this job with such high hopes and I really enjoyed it. I left there with my morale very low, not enjoying what I did anymore, being disgusted."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Fear and loathing."

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