by Bob Geary
Updating this post from two days ago
School Superintendent Tony Tata met with board members Susan Evans and Christine Kushner today for a heart-to-heart. One of those frank discussions. Board chair Kevin Hill was there also. Tata apologized for flying off the email handle and acknowledged that nothing Evans & Kushner did violated any ethics standard, as he'd suggested. Board Attorney Ann Majestic was there as well. Her statement that she'd have to research whether there was an ethics violation didn't help — she signed on as well to the obvious: There was no ethics violation. Not even close.
Here the joint statement they released:
Board members Susan Evans and Christine Kushner; Board Chair, Kevin Hill; Superintendent Tony Tata; and Board attorney, Ann Majestic met today and had 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. 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.
Kevin L. Hill, Board Chair
Susan P. Evans, Board Member
Christine Kushner, Board Member
Tony Tata, Superintendent
Ann Majestic, Board Attorney
The original post:
Screaming headlines in the N&O would lead us to believe that Earth has been attacked (Arm the Giant Font!) and somehow two members of the Wake school board are stopping Tony Tata from defending his schools against the enemy. The enemy being an alien force calling itself the Great Schools in Wake coalition.
As someone said this morning, let's all not forget to breathe.
In fact, what happened is that Tata, the schools superintendent, pitched a little fit in the form of an email and subsequent statement, both designed for public consumption, attacking Susan Evans and Christine Kushner for associating with people who don't agree with him about student assignment. No large weapons were discharged — to my knowledge.
Before I say why I think Tata's attack was so completely wrong-headed, let me first observe that Tata is obviously nervous about the rollout of his new student assignment plan — the choice plan — and how it's going. I get that. I'm nervous about it, and it isn't even my plan, although I have generally supported it with one big caveat that I've written about before.
Tata's nervous, everybody who's supported him is nervous, the people who brought him the plan (the Wake Chamber of Commerce and Wake Education Partnership) should be nervous, and nobody is more nervous than Evans, Kushner and Jim Martin, the new three school board members elected in October. The only people who aren't nervous are the Republican board members who took Tata's plan, stripped it of a key diversity ("achievement") element, and after setting in motion last fall, made plans to get out of Dodge, i.e., run for other political offices, while the getting was good.
Evans and Kushner, in particular, were active in the Great Schools in Wake coalition, which did not support the plan, though as anyone who followed the group will understand, some members were highly critical of it and others were thinking it might be OK if amended in one or two fundamental ways to restore what the Republicans took out.
I think it's fair to say that Evans and Kushner (and Martin) were in that latter category. This choice plan was underway when they were elected. They considered whether it should be stopped or delayed, say, for a year. But they didn't stop it. Presumably they could've, since the two holdover Democrats on the board, Kevin Hill and Keith Sutton, voted against the plan when the Republicans adopted it. Evans, Kushner and Martin chose not to stop it, however, which is why they as much as anyone are nervous today as a plan that they didn't initiate and didn't fully support unfolds for better or worse on their watch.
So what's wrong with Tata's attack? Plain and simple, it was ridiculous for two reasons.
First, he attacked Evans and Kushner for being part of a citizens group while being board members. Both have said they stopped being active in GSIW when they took office, but what if they didn't? What if they continued to attend meetings of the GSIW coalition just as Ron Margiotta continued to attend meetings of the Wake County Taxpayers Association when he was on the board? What if Evans and Kushner continued to attend Democratic Party meetings just as Margiotta, John Tedesco, Debra Goldman and Chris Malone did — and do — as board members. The last three are running for political office in Republican primaries.
And our takeaway should be, so what? It's a free country. School board members don't take vows of political or civic chastity when they take their seats. They do pledge not to let their votes be controlled by a political or civic group, and the fact is, Evans, Kushner and Martin have voted consistently against the wishes of the Great Schools in Wake coalition's leadership since they assumed office.
Second, Tata attacked Evans, Kushner and Martin for discussing — with some emails back and forth — whether the choice plan should be stopped. Earth to Superintendent Tata: Board members are allowed to talk with one another. They are allowed to talk in groups. The only thing not allowed is a private meeting (or, I gather, email exchange) to which a majority of board members are party — i.e., five members in this case since the full board has nine members.
To suggest that board members are barred from talking with each other about important school issues and how to address them except when they're sitting at the board table in an official session is ludicrous. Moreover, anyone with experience about a school board or city council functions will understand that the members had better compare notes beforehand, because the agenda and pace of their public meetings will be controlled by the Superintendent and his staff or the City Manager and his staff.
Tata thinks Great Schools in Wake is persecuting him. Although he "could not care less" about that, he clearly cares too much — way too much. GSIW's leaders, especially Yevonne Brannon, are highly critical of Tata. General, that comes with the territory. School assignment is a battlefield in Wake County and has been for years. But on this battlefield, it's not a war between one army led by former Brig. Gen. Tata and another army led by Commander Brannon.
On this battlefield, there are many, myriad forces thinking they know what's best for Wake County, and victory consists of finding consensus among as many as possible while continuing to reach out — and always listening respectfully — to those who disagree. Listening, even, when they're coming at you with information that you'd don't think is accurate. (But are you so sure there isn't something of value in it?)
That's why being a successful political leader — and being school superintendent is as political a job as it gets — is not the same as being an Army general. I continue to believe that Tony Tata knows the difference. But knowing it is one thing. Doing it when the pressure is on and the criticisms of you are coming fast and furious is something else.
It's that something else, however, that leadership requires.