Cary, N.C. — Tensions were high at the first Wake County Board of Education meeting since former Superintendent Tony Tata was fired last week, as Republican board members and parents unleashed angry criticisms of the Democratic board majority.
With next year's student assignment plan and a $1 billion bond to fund new school construction hanging in the balance, Chairman Kevin Hill opened Tuesday's meeting with a concession that the board "could have acted better" in how it handled the firing. Tata, just 20 months into a four-year contract, was terminated without cause and given more than $250,000 in severance pay under a separation agreement approved along party lines at last week's meeting.
Hill gave a fuller and more specific justification for the board's decision, citing concerns about student achievement, fiscal responsibility and trust under Tata's leadership. Ultimately, Hill said the board was spending too much time "putting out fires" and not enough time focused on students and schools.
"The superintendent came to us with little experience and made many mistakes, most recently with the implementation or our current assignment plan," Hill said.
Fellow board members John Tedesco and Debra Goldman seized on his comments, calling them hypocritical and cowardly.
"I'm a little disheartened to hear our chairman just comment on a couple items, in particular, concerns about using tax dollars wisely after you just flushed a quarter-million dollars of our children's money away," Tedesco said. "That money could have been used to serve our children."
"I am shocked, absolutely shocked," said Goldman. "Mr. Tata was fired without cause – it says it twice in the termination contract – and Mr. Hill, your signature, I believe, appears on that contract as the board chair, so for you to sit here and make degrading comments about his ability to do the job" is "despicable."
Board member Susan Evans, however, said that the decision to terminate Tata was no based on "petty grievances" and that she was "anguished" by the situation. But she said actions and attitudes out of the public's view caused her trust in Tata to erode.
"We were told insulting things in private conversations in an effort to bully us into stepping in line with the superintendent," she said, adding that staff members said Tata "ruled with an iron fist, showing little respect."
In the first public comment session since speculation about Tata's job began early last week, parents expressed outrage at the board's actions.
"I am astonished by the hypocrisy on this board," said Kathleen Brennan. "All of you should consider tendering your own resignations."
Tiffany Birkner said the superintendent's ousting once again puts student assignment in flux.
"You all have put us in a panic," she said. "I feel like you sold us out ... How you can go to bed at night, I do not know."
Board members on both sides of the aisle pointed to outside influences that have created partisanship and division within the school board.
Board member Jim Martin said he was "effectively threatened" by county leaders who urged him to step in line with Tata or risk losing support for the school bond.
"We are where we are today because of the misperception that partnership is achieved by laying out a series of demands that others must subscribe to," Martin said. "Partnership requires coming to the table, informed by data, informed by one’s personal and professional perspective, in order to collaborate in finding solutions."
Tedesco said he was "floored" by Martin's comments.
"(It) reeks of hypocrisy for Dr. Martin to talk about partisanship or ideological political groups to threaten the board into action," he said. "You and other members of this board (before being elected) were locked arm-in-arm with those groups, threatening us for years."
The contentious meeting came on the heels of Wake County Commissioner Paul Coble putting on hold upcoming meetings to discuss the school bond issue, writing in a letter to Hill that the board's recent actions raise "serious concerns about the direction, leadership and consistency of the Wake County Public School System."
Coble, a Republican, said the partnership between the school board and the county commissioners is "up in the air."
Tedesco said he understood county leaders' concerns, and pointed to Hill for failing to fulfill his promise of being a truly nonpartisan leader.
"While what you see up here is a failure of leadership, our schools are moving forward every day," he said. "Our teachers are still working hard, our principals are still working hard and our schools are doing wonderful things for our children, despite what you see up here."