Weekly Briefing

Tata’s troubles

Don’t blame the school board for the Wake County superintendent’s problems

Word on the street these days (or at least in the mainstream news media) is that Wake County schools superintendent Tony Tata may be nearing the end of his brief and tumultuous tenure in North Carolina’s capital county. If so, this is not a happy development.

But, it may well be a very positive one for the school system and the 150,000 kids it tries to educate on a daily basis.

Here are some hard truths about the General and the $250,000/year position he has filled for the past 21 months:

#1 – The schools superintendent simply must have the confidence of the board to which he or she reports. In many ways, selecting the superintendent is the single most important thing a school board does. Indeed, it would be malfeasance on a board member’s part to continue to work on a daily basis with a superintendent with whom he or she does not have a good working relationship and a high level of trust. If Tata does not enjoy the confidence of the majority of the Board, he ought to resign.

#2 – By all indications, there have been numerous incidents – especially since the new Board majority assumed control of the Board after the 2011 election – in which Tata has openly clashed with multiple Board members on everything from substantive policy decisions to their right to interact with community groups and other paid school board staff beyond his earshot. This is not a healthy or sustainable situation.

#3 – The substance of Tata’s performance is very much open to question. While Tata is clearly an appealing fellow with some useful skills, the bottom line on his performance over the past 21 months is mixed at best. The centerpiece of his administration – the new “choice” plan and the transportation chaos it helped spawn – has been a disaster in many respects. Meanwhile, the value of the new and expensive same-sex academies he has championed remains very much open to question.

#4 – His supervisory work is also subject to question. Not only did Tata hire a former phone company executive from 3,000 miles away as a top deputy and, apparently, pay her a salary comparable to the Governor’s, he also clearly chased off a large number of dedicated and highly competent school system veterans.

#5 – Tata’s hiring was always a long shot. Tata was hired by a new and radical school board majority that assumed power in a fluke election and sought to reverse decades of nationally acclaimed progress and success almost overnight. He brought little education experience and no history of connections in Wake County to the job. Soon after he was hired, that radical majority was swept out of power in a massive voter repudiation that has placed the school board’s leadership back in line with the patterns it had adhered to for decades. To think Tata could stay in the job long-term without working extremely hard to build strong bridges to his new bosses would be foolish. Tata was and is clearly aware of this reality and still chose not to adapt.

Finally, a word about how all of this appears to be going down. If Tata is actually on the way out, the school board majority should have done (and could be doing) a better job of making a public case for why this is necessary. As noted above, Tata is an affable fellow with some real skills. Many people like him and, by all indications, he has put in some hard work. From a distance – the place at which most average Wake County residents are observing the situation – it’s often hard to get a grasp on these issues between a governing board and its hired staff.

But, of course, another plain truth is that most of the moms and dads running the school board – especially the group in the board majority — are not professional politicians. They’re just average folks trying to do an enormously difficult job while, at the same time, righting a massive ship that was shaken to its core during an incredibly hostile takeover.

Maybe, in hindsight, it would have been better had the new board majority that was elected last fall simply cut its losses and done like the Margiotta-Tedesco crowd that preceded them by replacing Tata immediately. For better or for worse, however, that’s not who these people are.

Unlike the 2009 group, they are not ideologues bent of pursuing a radical agenda; they are average folks trying to make a fundamentally good system work with the tools at hand. They may not have chosen Tata themselves, but unlike their radical predecessors, they at least tried to listen and learn and make the system work with the tools and personnel they inherited.

That it appears to have taken them the better part of a year (and much pain and suffering) to determine that this good faith attempt is simply not sustainable ought not to be not grounds for criticism, but admiration and thanks.

Going forward

At this writing, Tata’s future is uncertain and Wake County schools are receiving a lot of unwanted publicity. Let’s hope that in the future, whoever fills the job of Wake County superintendent (whether it’s Tata or someone else), they opt for a lower profile and a less confrontational approach based on cooperation with (and trust in) the elected board members who bear ultimate responsibility for the system’s success.