As part of today's article on Wake County Superintendent Tony Tata's one-year anniversary on the job, he sat with the N&O for an extensive interview.
Here are some highlights from the interview, which touched on a variety of topics, including student assignment, the budget and how Tata evaluates his job performance.
The big topic of the moment is the implementation of the new student assignment plan. Tata was asked about the complaints from parents of charter school and magnet school students than the rules have changed on them since they can't just go to a base school now.
“For the thousands of parents who were reassigned every year, the rules changed for them every year," he said. "So our goal is to establish a consistent set of rules that are applied evenly across the county and which everyone understands and that is very transparent and that everyone can make well-informed decisions based upon and that’s what we believe we have with the plan.”
He also said that there was "no guarantee" that the nodes for the magnet and charter school families wouldn't have been reassigned under the old plan.
On the importance of stability in assignment: "The number of parents that I've talked to who have said, 'My child, my node got reassigned three or four times in a five-year elementary span,' is in he hundreds," he said. "If you just do simple math and extrapolate it outward there were thousands of parents that were in that situation.
The national studies demonstrate that stability is a key factor in determining student achievement. Instability in the same grade-level span contributes to lower student performance, more challenging peer-to-peer connections and poor behavior for students. That is a proven fact nationally by several different institutes that have done these studies.
So if we can achieve stability in assignment, and that is the whole concept behind the feeder patterns, then we have a chance at attracting parents to the schools that they want to be in and then stabilizing their children in those schools and increasing student achievement. That’s the logic behind focusing on stability as a key determinant of student achievement.”
On what percentage of parents oppose the assignment plan: "Certainly there are some people that are thrilled with the plan and certainly there are some people who have concerns about it," he said. "I think as we continue with choice selection and take a hard look at some of the choices that are being made and some of the foreseen and unforeseen consequences, then we deal with those as required.”
On magnet school applications declining: "There’s been a little bit made of magnet numbers this year versus last year," he said. "Last year, people had a choice of a school based on their node assignment or the choice of a magnet school. Now they have exponentially more choice and so when someone is offered more choice, random distribution would just tell you that choice is going to be distributed over a number of choices as opposed to one of two choices.”
Tata added that he feels good about the health of the magnet program. He noted the upcoming magnet school review. Pointing to all the preassigned sixth- and ninth-graders, he said that the percentage of students placed into magnet schools is actually up this year.
On developing the new budget: "Part of my getting into schools with some intensity here in the last few weeks has remained consistent with understanding where our schools are in resourcing and class sizes and so forth so as I develop the budget I'm doing it based upon reality from a school-based perspective, not from a central office perspective.
Based on what I'm seeing, I can pretty much reaffirm my goals again this year are going to be on protecting teachers and classrooms as we did last year and then making all schools high demand, Keeping primacy on those two goals and of course operating more efficiently."
On avoiding teacher layoffs and classroom cuts this year: “We’re going to propose a realistic budget that barring any future cuts that right now are not on the table and being talked about, it’s going to be tight, but we’re going to make a recommendation that right now does not cut teachers or anyone in the classroom," he said.
When asked if that meant a request for a funding increase from the county is in the budget, Tata said it was "premature" to discuss that publicly.
On how he feels he's done this past year: “I work hard every day," he said. "I sleep well at night knowing that I left everything out on the field. I get up and get after it again the next day. I am driven by the desire to serve the students, the parents and the staff as well as I can. Based on that metric, I feel as though I’m working hard. I think I’m doing okay.”
On what it's been like being superintendent: "It’s been fun leading the district," he said. "I have been so impressed with the principals and teachers we’ve got here and the students.
This is an excellent school system. Our number one objective is to preserve it and enhance it and increase our effectiveness so that we have more students graduating, more students graduating with higher grade point averages and we have students graduating with skill sets.”
On changes he's made to the principal selection process: Tata says he asks his area superintendents for the names of the top three finalists for principal positions. He said he generally interviews them and then meets with the area superintendent and Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore about who they think is the best fit.
"I think one of the most important things I do is select principals because if I get the right principal, if we get the right principal to a school, we have a pretty high assurance that principal is going to make excellent decisions on staffing, excellent decisions on leadership, excellent decisions on implementation of curriculum and the children and the students will be well cared for and will achieve," he said.
On no longer doing political commentary: "When you look back at what kind of year we've had from a foreign policy perspective, Bin Laden's been killed. We've had Syria. We've had Libya and all of that. I would number it in the dozens of requests from different major national networks that have asked me to comment and I've of course turned it down. I am the superintendent of Wake County Public Schools and I am focused on leading this district."
On relations with the new and old school boards: "I think the former board was a good board and I think the new board is a good board. All nine members of the former board rightfully and passionately represented their district's interests and the county's interests and I think this board is doing the same thing. I enjoy my work with the board and enjoy representing the 18,000 employees and the 147,000 students we have."