Raleigh, N.C. — Newly appointed state Transportation Secretary Tony Tata says he wasn't completely blindsided by his departure from the state's largest school system nearly four months ago when the Wake County school board voted to fire him from the superintendent's post he had held for less than two years.
"I could sense there were some things in the winds, and it was no secret there was a direction and pace issue, I believe. So, as it came to a head, it was not a complete surprise," he said Tuesday in an exclusive interview with WRAL News.
"I was heartbroken," he added. "That was the only emotion I felt."
Known for his hands-on approach as superintendent, Tata visited every school in the district at least once and held more than 800 meetings with community groups, parents, teachers and students. Every decision he made, he said, was in the best interests of Wake County's nearly 150,000 students.
"That whole time for me was one of great satisfaction," he added. "I told the board chairman and vice chair, 'I’m not walking out on the people of Wake County. You’re going to have to deal with this.'"
Amid growing speculation by community members that Tata's job was in jeopardy, the Democratic majority of the nine-member board voted Sept. 25 to release the retired Army general – hired by a Republican board majority in 2010 – from his four-year contract.
Many people campaigned to save Tata’s job, and those who condemned the controversial firing called it political.
In its defense, board leadership cited an "increasingly strained" relationship with Tata that "severely hampered" the board's ability to function. Other reasons, it said, had to do with operational issues with a new student assignment plan he implemented and his leadership style, which "did not leave room for collaborative decision making and input."
"I felt I was the right person for the job, and I still feel I was the right person to come and lead this system forward," Tata said.
When he saw a solution to a problem, he said, he wanted it handled with "direction" and "speed."
"I don’t believe that it’s fair to the child who needs a program this year to talk about it for a year," Tata said. "If we know we need the program, let's get the program to the child."
While he was superintendent, Tata put measures in place that he says helped low-income students perform above the state average for the first time in recent history, if ever. Students across the board, he said, also made significant gains.
"The (state) Department of Public Instruction has 20 areas where they grade us," Tata said. "We received high marks in 19 of those 20 areas."
He started two leadership academies aimed at giving students opportunities to earn college credit and get on a path to college that they might not otherwise have.
And he preserved teaching jobs while trying to balance a school system budget with a gap of $60 million.
"I think the direction and the passion was the rub," Tata said of his termination. "I was proud of the direction we were going."
Months later, newly elected Gov. Pat McCrory appointed Tata to the transportation post to oversee and develop a 25-year plan to maintain and expand North Carolina's transportation system.
It's a role, Tata said, for which he is confident that his military and management experience qualifies him.
"I'm going to continue what I've done all my life," he said. "In the military, I led from the front, in the fox hole. I was all over Afghanistan. At the Wake County Public School System, I was in every single school. And here at the Department of Transportation, I'm going to be all over the state making sure I'm a visible leader supporting the men and women doing the hard work."