Wake County Schools

School board's relationship with Tata became 'increasingly strained'

Posted September 26, 2012 12:31 p.m. EDT
Updated September 26, 2012 7:19 p.m. EDT

— The relationship between Wake County school board members and Superintendent Tony Tata had become "increasingly strained" in recent months, to the point that it "severely hampered" the work of the board and its ability to function, school board leaders told reporters Wednesday.

"It's imperative that any superintendent earns and maintains the trust and confidence of the school board," board Chairman Kevin Hill said in a news conference less than 24 hours after the board voted 5-4 to release Tata from his contract.

"While the superintendent continuously, publicly, said he would do whatever is necessary to build that relationship, his actions at times, both public and private, proved differently," Hill continued.

Other reasons leading to the board's decision, Hill and Vice Chairman Keith Sutton said, had to do with Tata's leadership style, which "did not leave room for collaborative decision making and input."

School system leaders, staff and principals sought Hill out, he said, with concerns that Tata's approach left many hesitant to speak up about ideas and what they feel is best for the school system and individual schools.

"The superintendent has been here for quite some time, and to be hearing these concerns now did and does concern me," Hill said. "I believe that it is the responsibility of a superintendent to build a strong functional team that allows for diverse opinions and even pushback at times."

Hill also cited operational issues in recent months, including a "disastrous start of the school year," the implementation of the district's new student assignment plan, which Tata worked to implement for more than a year, and a busing debacle in which parents complained about buses showing up late or not at all.

"It was becoming increasingly clear that, while (Tata) did well at calming the waters when he arrived … he might not be the right person to lead our school system going forward," Hill said.

Moving forward, he added, the board and school system will work to complete the revised student assignment plan, ensure continued academic gains and push for bonds to build new schools.

Despite criticism from board members, parents and members of the Wake County Republican Party that Tuesday's vote was partisan, Hill and Sutton said nothing about it was political.

"Those who say yesterday's actions will doom a bond referendum, I believe, are truly playing politics," he said. "When we're adding nearly 5,000 students a year, alone … and the need to build 20-plus schools in the next seven years, I think it's pretty clear that we need a bond referendum."

"I don't know third-graders that know the difference between Democrat and Republican," he added. "This is an issue in terms of quality of life in Wake County and building schools and having the seating capacity for the children and parents who continue to move into this area."

Hill also insisted that he was sincere and genuine about statements he made during his re-election campaign last year that he liked Tata and had no intention of letting him go.

"The truth of the question to the answer needs to be contextually tied to the time," Hill said, adding that speculation 11 months ago by Republican school board candidates was that a new board was going to fire Tata then and then derail work on the student assignment plan.

"People have to understand that circumstances do change," Hill said.

Besides brief statements prior to Tuesday's vote, Wednesday's comments are the first by the Democratic board majority justifying its actions.

Citing personnel privacy laws, Hill and Sutton declined to comment on specifics.

Republican board members, who helped bring Tata to Wake County in 2010, however, praised Tata Tuesday afternoon for his work and his efforts to unite the community at a time when it was divided over the best way students should be assigned to schools.

John Tedesco and Debra Goldman said Tata's termination, $250,000 in severance pay and the cost of finding a new superintendent will be a waste of money in tight economic times, not to mention lost time that, they said, will set the school system back when it comes to student achievement.

They called the vote a "disgusting" move by new board members who have a grudge against Tata.

Weighing in Wednesday, former school board Chairman Ron Margiotta agreed.

"I think he'd done a great job of bringing people together," he said. "He wasn't the kind of man who would take dictating from anyone. He'd tell you he wouldn't go along with what you wanted to do and explain why. I think that's also part of the (reason) that these people got rid of him."

Hundreds in the community also rallied around Tata, sending emails, starting an online petition and calling board members to ask them not to fire Tata, who recently had to publicly apologize for the busing problems after the district was flooded with complaints.

Jennifer Johnson is still dealing with the issues in her Apex neighborhood, but she doesn't think firing Tata resolves anything.

"Tata was just doing what he was told," she said. "I mean, he had to make the best of a bad situation."

The problem, she said, was never Tata.

"I feel like the board put everyone in a bad situation because they can't seem to come up with a consistent (assignment) plan that makes sense long-term," Johnson added. "If anybody needs to go, I feel like it's the board members."

Despite an assignment plan aimed at putting students in schools closer to their homes and giving parents more input into where their children are assigned, Kristen Buckley's son ended up at a school that wasn't among her top picks.

She said something had to change and supports the board's decision.

"I hate to see anybody get fired, but I don't know who else to blame in this situation," Buckley said.

Tata, she said, never responded to her emails asking why her son has to go to school in Fuquay-Varina, although there are three elementary schools within a couple miles of their Holly Springs home.

She's also had to deal with busing issues that she believes stem from the student assignment plan.

"I'm not sorry to see him go," she said.

The state NAACP, which has been a vocal critic of the current student assignment plan, issued a statement commending the school board on how it handled "the difficult issues raised" by Tata's performance as superintendent.

"We urge everyone to focus on the needs of our children, our families, our teachers and our schools as we go forward," the organization said in a statement.