Cary, N.C. — The Wake County Board of Education met Tuesday to begin the process of finding a permanent replacement for former Superintendent Tony Tata, who was fired a week ago in a controversial move that now brings up new questions about the school system's future, specifically a school construction bond and whether the board will be able to work on it with county leaders.
"There might be a little tension between the two boards," school board chairman Kevin Hill said Tuesday during a break between the board's 2 p.m. work session and 5:30 p.m. public meeting.
The comment comes after a letter from the Wake County Board of Commissioners' chairman, Paul Coble, informing Hill that he put on hold talks with the school board about the bond.
Coble said in the Sept. 28 letter that he also won't consider any meetings about the matter until the Democratic-controlled school board finishes its work on what he sees as a new student assignment plan as well as two other projects spearheaded by Tata in which the county was involved.
"The recent decision … to fire the superintendent raises serious concerns about the direction, leadership and consistency of the Wake County Public School System," Coble, a Republican, wrote. "Clearly, the new majority wants to set its own course, which leaves existing potential partnerships 'up in the air.'"
"Partnerships work only when each partner can rely on and trust the actions and consistency of the other partner," Coble added.
A construction bond is needed to help the school district accommodate the growing student population. Currently, about one in three schools is over capacity. As recently as July, Tata estimated a need for about three new schools a year.
Coble said in an interview with WRAL News, that without a superintendent, with division on the board and with no clear assignment plan, county commissioners want to be sure that they are not "left holding the financial bag."
"We will honor our commitments, and we just want (the school board) to honor theirs, Coble said. "It makes no sense to have meetings when you have a board at odds with itself."
School board Vice Chairman Keith Sutton said that although Coble is entitled to his opinion, he is disappointed that a proposed Oct. 12 meeting between the two boards won't happen.
"I can appreciate their need to get some level of commitment from us," Sutton said. "We'll continue working on the information (commissioners have requested)."
"I think, for the interest of this community and our kids, there has to be a meeting of the minds," board member Christine Kushner said. "We have needs in our school system. The county commissioners have their views, and I think we have to open communication."
Republican board members support Coble's letter.
"I think Paul Coble was spot on and well within his purview," Debra Goldman said. "I think he's right in what he's doing, because quite frankly, right now, I wouldn't trust this board with a bond issue or anything else."
"I think it's appropriate for him to ask, 'What's going on with this rudderless ship now?'" John Tedesco said. "It is completely appropriate, and it is his fiduciary responsibility to our taxpayers to ask these kinds of questions."
Although it is nominally nonpartisan, the issue of how to assign students to schools has divided the school board for years along party lines.
A Republican majority, elected in November 2009, ended the decade-old policy of busing students so that no school would serve a disproportionately financially disadvantaged student population.
Opponents complained that resulted in long bus rides and frequent reassignments. The board then hired Tata in 2010, who implemented a three-year plan dubbed "controlled choice," which went into effect this school year.
In June however, the Democratic board majority decided to revise the plan. They met on Saturday for a special session. Republican board members were absent; some said they had prior commitments.
The board majority 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.