Cary, N.C. — Just days after voting to fire Superintendent Tony Tata, the Wake County Board of Education met in an unusual Saturday work session to tackle the sticky issue of student assignment.
Board Chairman Kevin Hill was joined at the table by Christine Kushner, Susan Evans, Keith Sutton and Jim Martin. All are Democrats. Absent were Republicans Chris Malone, John Tedesco, Deborah Prickett, and Debra Goldman.
Although the board is nominally non-partisan, the issue of student assignment and even Tata's hiring and firing, have been split along party lines. The Republican board members held the majority when Tata was hired in December 2010. They recorded the minority votes against his ouster on Tuesday.
Parent Dina Handa said Saturday that she was concerned when she didn't see the board's Republican members.
"I can only ask why," she said. "I am concerned. I would like to think there is a reason – not the obvious one, which might be a non-professional one."
Board member Jim Martin said not having everyone at the work session makes it more difficult to hash out the details of the school system's third assignment plan change in as many years.
"I don't like to talk about Republicans and Democrats because we are all members of the school board, but I am disappointed that we don't have a larger contigent at the meeting," he said. "If we are willing to work together, we absolutely can, but you can't do it if you are not present."
WRAL News contacted three of the four Republican board members Saturday afternoon. Tedesco, Malone and Goldman said they had prior commitments.
The board is working on the details of a student assignment plan for the 2013-14 school year without the leadership of a superintendent or one of the assignment plan's chief architects. Judy Peppler, the district's chief transformation officer who was hired by Tata, said this week she would step down from her post on Oct. 6.
Tata came on board after a year of turmoil saw protests in downtown Raleigh and arrests at school board meetings as parents and board members clashed over the school system's policy of assigning students county-wide.
A Republican majority, elected in November 2009, ended the long-standing policy of using busing so that no school or cluster of schools would serve a disproportionately financially disadvantaged student population. Opponents complained that resulted in long bus rides and frequent reassignments. The board then hired Tata to develop a new plan, one he labeled "controlled choice," which went into effect this school year.
But still parents balked, saying that the plan did away with the idea of a "base" school in favor of a pool of choices at the elementary and middle school levels. The board discussed at length on Saturday whether to start from scratch in developing school attendance zones and high school feeder patterns or whether to build on the work already done.
"It's just upsetting, upsetting to have to such swift change within a year," Handa said. "A lot of unsettling times for us and our students. That's why we're looking to (the board) for more stability for them."
Last November, voters flipped the political balance again, putting Democrats in the majority on the board. Tata had been working with Peppler on a student assignment plan revision that would add "base" schools.
A flood of complaints about busing as the 2012 traditional school year began again put Tata and student assignment in the public eye, and it proved a glare he could not survive.
Tata will be paid about $250,000 – the remainder of his contract – while the board looks for a new leader. Stephen Gainey, the district's assistant superintendent for human resources, will serve as interim superintendent for up to 60 days while the board seeks Tata's permanent replacement.
The board is scheduled to meet in a work session Tuesday, Oct. 2, at 2 p.m. That is to be followed by a public meeting at 5:30 p.m. Both will be available LIVE on WRAL.com.