Democratic members of the Wake County school board were under the gun Tuesday to justify their decision to fire Superintendent Tony Tata.
As noted in today's article, Democratic members got far more explicit about their reasons for firing Tata than they did last week. At the same time, members of the audience and the Republican board members ripped into the board majority for its decision.
School board chairman Kevin Hill set the tone for the Democratic response during his opening comments.
"I’d like to address the events of the past week because I believe there have been some questions," Hill said. "In reality, I feel the board could have acted a little better in how it was handled.
I’ve got three areas I’d like to discuss. First is students. I believe the focus of the superintendent and the board should be on our students and student achievement.
But most of this past spring and summer, the board has been embroiled in putting out fires and debates over an assignment plan, merit pay, leadership academies and bus routes. By the start of the traditional-calendar year, it became clear that the choice plan has many flaws, of which transportation was one.
Concerns about using our tax dollars wisely: In many instances, program decisions were made before concurring with the Board of Education, and before details about cost were fully analyzed. We still do not have an estimate about the impact of the current assignment plan on the cost of transportation, how much the leadership academies will cost, or the cost of expanding our Global or STEM academies.
Finally, trust. When a majority of the board loses confidence that they’re being dealt with in a forthright manner and can no longer trust the superintendent, the bond for an effective superintendent-board relationship becomes broken by a lack of effective communication between the superintendent and the board.
The superintendent came to with us with little experience and made many mistakes, most recently with the implementation of our current assignment plan. While a first-class individual who invested tremendous time and effort in our county, we did not have the working relationship needed to match the demands of the 16th largest school system in the country."
During his comments, Democratic board member Jim Martin said he could "say with confidence this was not an arbitrary or baseless decision."
Martin said he ran for school board last year because of his commitment to education.
“We’re going to need to have all members of the community move past positions of withholding support for schools if their personal demands are not met," Martin said to laugher from the crowd.
Normally, supporters of the board majority have packed the meetings. The opposite was the case Tuesday with majority members, instead of the minority, facing mocking comments from the audience.
Martin also criticized the letter that Paul Coble, chairman of the board of commissioners, sent to Hill on Friday.
"I continue to have many fruitful and productive interactions and working relationship across the county with persons of all political backgrounds," Martin continued. "These folks provide information that helps me make better decisions. However I must note within weeks of my election and before being sworn in into office, I was effectively threatened by major civic leaders of this county indicating that I needed to support former Superintendent Tata’s agenda or else it would cost support for the school bond and other matters.
This week we have seen a continuation of this strategy. A strategy that issues a series of demands that must be met as a condition for partnership with a variety of initiatives including support for a construction 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. Partnership requires coming to the table informed by data, informed by one’s personal and professional perspective in order to collaborate in finding solutions.
In this regard I want to be very clear that any person or group, liberal or conservative, who issues demands for a certain action as a condition for their support for public schools appears to me to be more concerned about their political agenda than they are about students, teachers and public schools. I will listen to concerns expressed in such demands but my decisions will be based on data, not threats.”
Martin said he challenges the commissioners to develop a new method for funding school construction.
When it came to Republican board member John Tedesco's turn, he said he was "in shock" of the remarks made by Hill and Martin.
"I’m a little disheartened to hear our chairman just comment on a couple of items in particular, specifically concerns about using tax dollars wisely after you just flushed a quarter-million dollars of our children’s money away," Tedesco said. "Particularly knowing that a quarter-million dollars is exactly what is spent to do three Renaissance Schools A quarter-million dollars is what it would cost to do retrofit of technology on four other schools completely. That money could have been used to serve our children. So I am completely disheartened that you would even mention that.
More so, and with all due respect Kevin, I respect you, but I find it completely tactless and cowardess for you at this point to come in here and say this now when you had opportunity last week when we were talking about Superintendent Tata for you to comment on him, his quality, his quality of work and his performance. You should have did that then. Specifically before we voted to spend a quarter-million dollars.”
Tedesco went after Martin too.
"I find it completely flooring to me right now and reeks of hypocrisy for Dr. Martin to talk about partisan or ideological political groups that threaten the board into action of their goals, specifically as you yourself and other members of this board were locked arm and arm in those groups threatening us for years with marches of thousands of people," Tedesco said. "So if you want to move this board forward, I assure both of you at this time that’s not the way to do it.”
Republican board member Debra Goldman also responded to Martin's comments while firing another round of jabs at the Great Schools in Wake Coalition. Several speakers also attacked the group during public comment.
“I noticed Mr. Martin’s comments about being coerced or cajoled, or whatever words you used regarding groups on one end of the extreme or the other," Goldman said. "I noticed that the group that usually shows up to our meetings and is usually outspoken and has not been criticized or told to stop. In fact I said a prayer one time at the beginning of one of our meetings and the same group, they’re here tonight, heckled me in the middle of that.
But I noticed they were notably absent last week — perhaps celebrating. I’m not sure. But regardless, for board members to be so hypocritical to say that they’re not imbued by those groups, I can’t even fathom."
Goldman also hit on Hill's remarks.
“I am shocked, absolutely shocked," Goldman said. "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, the job that he did."
“So board members — despicable, despicable behavior from those of you that did this to our county, to our teachers, to our staff who are all in fear," Goldman later said. "There is fear and panic going through this county."
GOP board member Deborah Prickett said Hill's comments “were out of left field.”
“Mr. Hill is just one voice and he’s not my voice," Prickett said. "He doesn’t represent my opinions over this situation with Superintendent Tata. I feel he’s grasping at straws and the straws are not there.”
Democratic board member Susan Evans said that firing Tata is in the best interests of the school system in the long run. But she said she felt the need to show he wasn't fired because of petty grievances.
“The actions of Mr. Tata had resulted in a complete lack of trust on my part and that of the majority of my colleagues," Evans said. "This lack of trust and pervasive undermining of the board majority by the superintendent had a crippling effect on our ability to work together on initiatives that were critical for the success of the system.
Board members’ characters were attacked publicly. We were told insulting things in private conversations intending to bully us into stepping into line with the superintendent."
At this point the crowd reaction caused Hill to threaten to have security called to remove people from the room. Evans proceeded to raise her voice to talk over the crowd.
“On more than one occasion the superintendent or a staff member he directed purposely acted in opposition to directions from members of this board," Evans continued. "A complete air of suspicion had permeated the collaborative working relationship and I, for one, had no confidence that he would move forward on initiatives and policies established by the board with fidelity.
Additionally there were consistent reports from members of the staff that Mr. Tata ruled with an iron fist, showing little respect for the knowledge and expertise of many in this system. It became known to us that a culture of fear existed amongst the staff.
Employees were regularly berated in front of their peers and had their personal and professional integrity attacked to the point that many felt unable to share their ideas without the fear of retaliation. I feel that an effective leader sets the tone for respect for an organization and Mr. Tata did not adequately show respect for those with whom he shared different perspectives and did not show respect for many of the employees of Wake County Public Schools.
The public should know that Mr. Tata was made aware of these perceived deficiencies during his annual performance evaluation that was just completed recently. Instead of trying to rectifying any of these things, he continued to commit offenses that evaporated any hopes that I had for future positive improvements."
Democratic board member Christine Kushner said they could have done a better job of explaining why they fired Tata.
“The majority of the board could no longer trust the actions and the consistency of the superintendent," Kushner said. "In my 10 months on the board I did not view him as a neutralizing force. Among other things I felt concerns that we had overpromised our parents and families and that has led me to question how resources and tax dollars are being used in the best interests of our entire school system.”
As the board meeting agenda was being adopted, Goldman accused Hill and Evans of violating closed-session protocol to make "slanderous statements" in "a lame attempt to justify your unjustifiable actions."
Hill responded that he wasn't discussing closed-session matters. He said he had cleared his remarks ahead of time with board counsel.
During public comment, none of the speakers defended the firing of Tata. Several had harsh words to say about the firing as they praised Tata for his actions.
One speaker, Rene Herrick, drew a standing ovation after her speech. Herrick is a former Wake County Teacher of the Year who said that the teachers want Tata back.
“I am a proud teacher of Wake County," said Herrick, who noted that she's a Democrat who voted for Evans. "It was my greatest honor to serve with Mr. Tata. In my opinion, and that of many others that I represent, Mr. Tata was our hero.
He brought our district back from being the subject of ridicule and possibly losing our accreditation. He always demonstrated extraordinary leadership towards our teachers and our most precious treasures — our students.”