Wake County Schools

Wake school board meets as parents rally to keep Tata

Posted September 24, 2012 11:44 a.m. EDT
Updated September 25, 2012 5:59 a.m. EDT

— Dozens of parents, as well as members of the Wake County Republican Party, rallied outside the Wake County Public School System's central office Monday in support of Superintendent Tony Tata, who they believe could be removed from the post he's held for less than two years.

The Board of Education met for more than three hours in a private meeting Monday "to consider confidential personnel matters," according to the school system. An attempt to vote on the personnel item did not get the two-thirds vote it needed to be added to the agenda on short notice.

The board plans to resume the meeting at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

Board members have declined to talk about specifics, citing privacy laws, but board member Deborah Prickett said prior to Monday's meeting that "there is a possibility" that others on the board could vote to let Tata go.

"I think some of the board members came in with a chip on their shoulder, and maybe they haven't been able to work through the process," Prickett said. "I think the board was actually beginning to work together. I was seeing a change."

Speaking in a brief public session following the closed meeting, she and others expressed opposition to the matter at hand.

"I don't like any of this," board member Chris Malone said. "I am disgusted with the whole thing."

WRAL News has learned that there has been scrutiny among some school board members over Tata's job performance.

Tata, whose contract expires Dec. 31, 2014, has not responded to requests for comment.

He was absent from the latter part of Monday's meeting.

Hired in December 2010 by a Republican-led school board that included Prickett, Malone, and current board members Debra Goldman and John Tedesco, Tata led the effort to implement the school system's new student assignment policy.

Under his leadership, the district has also seen academic gains and a number of new initiatives, including leadership academies, aimed at raising student achievement.

Since his appointment, however, the board, which is supposed to be non-partisan, has changed politically and philosophically.

Power shifted to a Democratic majority last fall when two Democratic board members were re-elected and three others beat out Republican candidates.

The new majority has differing views when it comes to student assignment, and after less than a year of Tata's new plan in place, the board is now looking to change it.

Some of the most recent concerns by board members center on a flood of complaints that led Tata to apologize publicly to parents for school buses showing up late or not showing up at all when school began last month.

The district had taken dozens of buses out of service in an effort to cut costs but added about three dozen back in recent weeks after parents criticized the move.

A strained relationship with new school board members has also made headlines, including in February, when Tata questioned whether Democratic board members Susan Evans and Christine Kushner, who were elected last fall, supported a community group attacking his plan to change bus routes and bell schedules.

Parents who support the superintendent say they believe he has done an outstanding job and has been supportive of parents.

"I think most parents feel like we're finally in a place of stability, and we do not want to see change at this point," said Mike Cassetta, president of the Hilburn Academy PTA and one of about 30 supporters who showed up outside the school district's office.

Questions abound about how removing Tata could change the school system. In addition to the student assignment plan, the school board is looking to campaign to sell bonds next year for new schools. There's also issues dealing with accreditation, stemming from complaints about board leadership.

Tata supporters also speculate that a move to fire him is political.

Phil Matthews, a Republican and vice chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, posted on Facebook Saturday that "the new liberal school board members" are using "a lame excuse about buses to get rid of him."

"He is a good friend and is doing an outstanding job," Matthews posted. "I will take his firing personally.'"

Goldman said before Monday's meeting that she also believes the motive is political.

Republican board members wanted Monday's meeting to be open to the public, but the board voted 5-4 along party lines to keep it closed.

"I completely support Tony Tata. I have complete faith in Tony Tata. I think Tony Tata is a hero," Goldman said. "This is pure partisanship."

Democratic board members, including Evans, Kushner, board Chairman Kevin Hill and Jim Martin, refused to comment Monday afternoon.

Tata's appointment was not without controversy, as educators, parents, community groups and some school board members expressed concern about his lack of experience in education.

Prior to Wake schools, he served for about 18 months as the chief operating officer for District of Columbia Public Schools, where he oversaw purchasing, food service, technology and other support areas.

According to the terms of the contract, the board meets with Tata by Aug. 31 each year to finalize his annual performance goals. As part of his annual review, he gets an additional salary increase, performance-based compensation or both.

If the board were to decide to terminate Tata's contract, he has a right to have a hearing before the board.

If he's fired without cause, the school board would have to pay him one year of his current salary, which is about $256,000.