Cary, N.C. — The Wake County Board of Education's party-line vote to fire the school district’s superintendent less than two years into his four-year contract could have negative financial implications for the growing school system.
Wake County Board of Commissioners Chair Paul Coble blasted the "very partisan" decision to oust Tony Tata, raising concerns about funding the planned construction of up to 24 new schools and continued acrimony over student assignment.
"Will the county commission vote to give $1 billion to a school board that has no leadership and, at this point, has no real plan?" he said Tuesday, adding that he expects the board to overhaul its student assignment plan now that Tata is gone. "How can we possibly decide where we're going to put schools, build new schools, when there's no effective reassignment plan and there's no real leadership."
Board member John Tedesco, who said he was "fundamentally and 100 percent opposed" to firing Tata, also pointed to possible financial repercussions from the decision prior to the board's vote to approve a separation agreement under which Tata receives more than $250,000.
"This agreement will exercise a quarter million dollars at a time when our teachers are buying their own supplies, classrooms are lacking textbooks, when we can't find bus drivers. We went to our county commissioners asking for more money," he said. "It is an epic failure of this board that we have come to this ... I wouldn't trust this board with my lunch money."
Wake County Commissioner Joe Bryan said commissioners were planning to partner with the school board on a bond proposal to fund the school system's expansion.
"It's going to be hard to partner," Bryan said. "You don't have a superintendent. You've got a 5-4 dysfunctional board. You don't even have an assignment plan, so you don't know where your schools need to be built, and then you're going to come and ask our community to make a big decision."
The decision to oust Tata came after days of speculation about what "personnel matters" would be discussed in a closed-door meeting Monday.
During that meeting, the board voted to terminate Tata's contract, prompting the board to begin ironing out the separation agreement, which Tata said he participated in “reluctantly.”
"I am proud of all that we have accomplished as a school system in the last 20 months," Tata said Tuesday after the board publicly finalized his termination. "We have so much more to do, and so much more that I wanted to do."
People critical of the board's decision pointed to public statements by Chair Kevin Hill during his re-election bid that he believed Tata was doing a good job as superintendent.
"I'd give him an A-. I think he's coming along. I like Tony," Hill told WRAL's "On the Record" in November.
The board chair refused to comment on why his opinion of Tata's job performance changed, saying the reasons "get back into closed session and some other personnel issues."
Coble, a Republican, said that Tata continued to do a good job throughout his tenure.
"There is nobody that I've come across in public service who has done a better job, who has been as even-handed and fair in everything he's done," he said.
Tedesco and fellow Republican board members were visibly shaken Tuesday when they railed against the Democratic majority in the moments leading up to the 5-4 vote to oust Tata.
"With this partisan decision, the board has now guaranteed that there will be far fewer great schools in Wake County," board member Debra Goldman said. "I grieve for our children, our teachers and our staff. There will certainly not be the security and stability that the citizens of Wake County want."
Goldman added that she was "stunned and saddened" by the move.
Board member Chris Malone called the decision a "big mistake" with lasting negative effects.
"I think the timing of this, for whatever purpose, is a travesty – really, really stupid," he said.
But Democratic board members said the vote was not political.
"The vote I cast is not a partisan vote. I never have and never will cast a partisan vote. My votes are independent. They are mine," board member Jim Martin said. "They are based on facts. They are based on data. They are based on experience."
Board member Susan Evans said the decision was based on "a culmination of experience and feedback for the 10 months I've been on the board."
"I want the public to know this is not an easy decision for any of us to get to. We're not gloating. We're not happy about this," she said. "I would have liked for it to have been any other way that we could have all seen this as a long-term working situation."
Tata pointed to a list of accomplishments in the school system since he was hired in December 2010, including positive academic gains, an elevated accreditation status, the creation of leadership academies, raises and bonuses for teachers and staff, the development of two student assignment plans and better services for the district's 20,000 special education students.
"I will profoundly miss the students, teachers, staff and principals, as well as the many hard-working business partners, volunteers and parents who make our school system so great," Tata said. "I say thank you for your support and loyalty to our core mission of raising academic achievement for all children.
"It has been my distinct honor and privilege to serve with you."