Editor's Note: At press time Tuesday, the Wake County Board of Education voted 5-4 to fire Superintendent Tony Tata. The vote was split along party lines: Democrats for dismissing Tata and Republicans against. Tata will receive $253,000 in severance.
Republican John Tedesco, who was among the board members who hired him, said: "This is an epic failure. I wouldn't trust this board with my lunch money."
Board member Debra Goldman, also a Republican, added: "We're losing our superintendent. He has led with a quiet strength and is being fired by a partisan school majority because they didn't pick him. It's that simple."
Follow the story on the Indy's Citizen blog.
After a week of skirmishing over bedrock issues of student assignment and diversity, the Wake County Board of Education is suddenly and unexpectedly in combat mode again. The subject: firing Superintendent Tony Tata.
Tata's firing raises a raft of related policy questions. Here's my assessment of what is going on.
Q. How did we get here?
A. The five Democratic members terminated his contract. They weren't talking Monday, but it was what they didn't say that told the story. A dozen reporters and videographers were there because Republicans had spread the news that Tata—whom they support—could be ousted. The Democrats, instead of dispelling that rumor, underlined it by ending the closed-door meeting and, grim-faced, convening in public to support the motion by Vice Chair Keith Sutton to add the personnel item to Tuesday's agenda. When the motion failed, the Democrats departed without comment.
I can't imagine a lame-duck Tata wanting to stay on and promising to make peace with a Democratic majority that will remain in power through the 2015 elections. Tata, the former Army general, is accustomed to being in charge. Making nice with adversaries is not his forte. And three years of gritted teeth aren't what Wake County needs.
Q. Why is Tata a goner?
A. The short answer is that the board majority of Democrats is convinced he doesn't listen to or respect them. In some ways, it's a classic board-manager conflict. A board sets policy. A manager, in this case the superintendent, executes it. If the two aren't on the same page, the board's only recourse is to replace the manager with someone who will be.
A longer answer starts with the fact that Tata has battled publicly with three of the Democrats in a pair of very unusual episodes for an appointed manager who answers to an elected board. In one incident, which preceded the 2011 elections, Tata said then-candidate Jim Martin wasn't telling the truth about an email exchange that was otherwise of passing significance. In the second, Tata called Susan Evans and Christine Kushner unethical because they attended awards ceremonies for the Great Schools in Wake Coalition. (These events included one in which the Indy recognized GSIW with a 2012 Citizen Award.) GSIW has been highly critical of Tata. Evans and Kushner were active in the coalition prior to their election but not since.
Two public dustups over sideline matters hint at other fights that have occurred privately about important policy questions.
At the board meeting last week, in fact, Martin said pointedly that he will not accept assurances from the superintendent's staff that Tata's new "hybrid" student assignment plan will protect diversity using undefined measures of student achievement.
Martin recalled the questions he raised about the choice assignment plan put together by Tata that went into effect a month ago. In particular, Martin had pressed Tata about the wisdom of cutting back on buses to save money while offering students more choices of schools they could attend.
"I'm not trying to poke a stick in anybody's eye," Martin began tersely. "But, you know, I raised a lot of questions about [the logic] of the busing plan, and we were assured that everything was going to work. I didn't believe it, and it panned out that there was a problem.
"So when I'm assured that student achievement is taken into account in the assignment process, I'm sorry, I have the same questions I had with transportation," Martin said. "And I don't want to come up next year and see that those concerns are validated."
Q. So is Tata being fired for the busing fiasco at the beginning of the school year and the start of Tata's choice plan?
A. That's part of it. Remember, Tata's choice plan was approved before the 2011 elections, when a five-member Republican majority held power. The two Democrats still on the board, Sutton and Board Chair Kevin Hill, voted against it.
Tata has accepted responsibility for the busing failures, and he's since added buses. But it didn't sit well with his critics when top staffer Don Haydon, the system's veteran and well-liked facilities operations manager (and, Bill Clinton-style, its "chief explainer"), suddenly announced his retirement two weeks ago. GSIW leaders have accused Tata of making Haydon a scapegoat for blunders that Haydon saw coming but couldn't head off.
Haydon hasn't spoken publicly, but it's surprising that he'd retire with a 2013 bond referendum pending. Bond issues, and the schools they build, were Haydon's specialty.
Whatever happened to Haydon, it is clear that the Democratic majority is moving against Tata while the odor of the busing mess lingers with the public.
Q. What's the outlook for Tata's "hybrid" assignment plan if Tata is gone?
A. Actually, all of the Democrats spoke positively about the hybrid plan, which is supposed to retain the best features of the choice plan but, as in past years, provide students with a base school assignment tied to their address.
Under the hybrid approach, students would be guaranteed the right to finish in the school they currently attend (through elementary, middle or high school) unless they want to change.
If there are more returning students and base students than a school can hold, some of the base students would be sent to "overflow" schools—the base assignment would give way to avoid reassignments. After returning and base students are assigned, students could apply to the magnet schools or any other school with available seats.
Having embraced the basic framework of the plan, however, the Democrats—especially Martin, Evans and Kushner—complained that the diversity element was unacceptably weak. Tata had slated public hearings on this plan starting this week. The five Democrats said the plan wasn't ready and they cancelled them.
Q. Remind me, what's the diversity issue again?
A. For many years, diversity in the Wake schools was measured by race, with student assignments designed so that no school was overwhelmingly white or predominantly African-American. For the last decade, a socioeconomic measure, the number of low-income students eligible for the federal lunch program, was substituted for race.
When the Republicans won control of the school board in the 2009 elections, they stripped Policy 6200, the assignment policy, of all references to diversity, preferring "neighborhood schools."
Consequently, Martin noted at the board table last week, the choice plan the Republicans adopted—which Tata fashioned as a compromise to avoid a pure neighborhood schools approach—has nonetheless reduced the number of low-income students in upscale schools while packing more into schools in poor neighborhoods.
In short, Martin said, it made a bad situation worse. The percentage of low-income students in Wake schools now ranges from a low of 7 percent to a high of 83 percent, he said. Moreover, most schools are moving away from the county average (about 32 percent of Wake students are low-income) when the goal should be to move more schools toward the average.
In the new Tata hybrid, neither race nor income would be used to measure diversity. Instead, school populations would be balanced according to student achievement. But as Martin noted, the hybrid plan was vague about how achievement would be measured. It also lacked any standard for indicating when a school would have too many underachieving students—or too few.
Q. Why haven't the Democrats, after winning a board majority in the 2011 elections, rewritten Policy 6200 to restore a strong diversity element?
A. That's an excellent question. It appears that the five Democrats don't agree on what the diversity standards should be. And Tata, who might've steered them to a consensus, didn't.
Q. What are the prospects for a bond issue in 2013 if Tata is fired?
A. The Wake County Board of Commissioners is controlled by a 4-3 Republican majority and will be at least through the 2014 elections. As one Republican said to me privately, the chances that the Wake commissioners would agree to a bond referendum requested by the school board would be a lot better if Tata—who was hired by the Republicans at the end of 2010—was asking for it, too.
Without a bond issue, school overcrowding would cripple any assignment plan, whether address-based or choice-based. Indeed, though the choice plan is currently cursed by lack of buses, its real weakness is lack of capacity—with some schools under-chosen and popular schools filled up fast. That's leaving a lot of kids—and their parents—in schools they didn't pick or want.