Monday, January 3, 2011

Wake School Board Majority Should Be Ashamed

While most of us have been enjoying holiday merriment over the past couple of weeks, there has been a significant development regarding the education of children in Wake County, NC.  On Thursday, December 23, the Wake County School Board announced that they had hired retired Army Brigadier General Anthony J. Tata to be the new Superintendent of the Wake County Schools.  Tata comes to run the Wake County school system, which is the 18th largest school system in the nation, after 10 months of training in school system management at the Broad Superintendents Academy and 19 month overseeing purchasing, food services, technology, and other support services for the District of Columbia Public Schools (which is the 71st largest school system, with less than half as many students and two thirds of the budget of the Wake County system).

So while there are reasons to be concerned with Tata's ability to serve in this position, I'm trying to keep an open mind about him until we get to hear from him directly and see him in action.  And certainly I want him to succeed in improving the education for the nearly 150,000 student for whom he will be responsible.  But one thing that I am clear about is how poorly the majority coalition on the Board has handled his hiring.  Their arrogant and exclusionary behavior in selecting Tata has not done the guy any favors in being able to serve the entire Wake County community.

The first misstep by the School Board majority was the timing of the hiring process.  They announced his selection TWO days before Christmas.  Coming from DC, I know this is the oldest trick in the book. Politicians ALWAYS wait until the week before Christmas to announce something significant--as long as it is BAD news.  Divorcing the faithful spouse, admitting to an extramarital affair or an illegitimate child, announcing a stint in rehab--that's the kind of news that public officials release right before Christmas in the hopes it will get lost amidst the distractions of the holiday.

In this case, they made it even more of a slap-in-the-face to the teachers in the Wake County schools by waiting until the day after their last workday in 2010 to announce his hiring.  Also, they rushed this decision through on an emergency meeting of the Board that gave the members--or, at least, the minority members-only 48 hours notice (and one them was already out of town for work).  They refused to delay final action until their regularly-scheduled meeting on the first week of January in order to allow some public comment on this decision.

And what was their rationale for this rush to hire?  Board Chair Margiotti claimed that they had to move right away to assure they could get the man he said was the strongest among the three finalists.  Well, to that I say, POPPYCOCK (insert your own expression of indignation here).  I've still been reading the national education news over the holidays, and I didn't hear about any other similar job that might have attracted Tata that was awarded before January 4th, the date of the next Board meeting.  In fact, when DC Superintendent Michelle Rhee left the system (after she had publicly campaigned for the Mayor who hired her, who then lost, and the new Mayor decided he didn't need a school superintendent who had been attacking him among his constituency), she assured the public that the rest of her team would be staying in place until the end of the school year to assure continuity for the DC schools.  (Tata says that he agreed to stay, unless he got the Wake County, basically, agreed to stay unless he got another job, in which case he was going to abandon ship as well.)  The bottom line is, there is no sign that Tata would be snatched away by some other school system had the Board waited for an additional 12 days.

So to my mind, in handling the decision in this manner, the majority of the School Board admitted the following:
  1. That they expect Tata to be considered "bad news" by much of the community;
  2. That since they had the votes they needed, they didn't care whether the minority members on the Board were there or not;
  3. That they didn't care about the teachers' reaction to their new school leader; and
  4. That they don't care about the public's reaction, or think that public concerns need to be addressed or even considered.

Oh, and maybe that they think that we are a bunch of fools who will buy a ridiculous explanation like that and that even if we were distracted over the holidays, we're not going to raise our concerns now.

So I really feel sorry for Anthony Tata.   Being a School Superintendent of such a large and diverse public school system is a really tough job at the best of times, and this is far from the best of times.  The Wake County public is more divided than ever, the fiscal situation means that he is going to have to cut budgets and order layoffs, and the system is under investigation by both a federal civil rights unit AND by the regional accreditation agency.  He didn't need to be thrust into the job in a way that was sure to antagonize, and perhaps even galvanize, those who don't see eye-to-eye with the Board majority.

So good luck to you, General Tata.  You're going to need it.  And shame on all those Board members who acted in such a way as to make your nearly-impossible job even harder.


  1. That's the sort of thing that makes me wish for "hundreds of small systems" instead of one-two large one where "big dogs" fight it out and everybody else maybe gets to vote a bit.

    Imagine 150k kids educated in about a thousand different systems. Imagine the board of one of those little systems doing what you just described. My bet is, the one or two hundred people in that system would just up and leave for one of the other 999 systems. Or, they would leave the board members in the system and make a new one for the rest of them together (because making of systems is easy in such a situation).

    Though the sci-fi book describing something like this ("Diamond Age") is rather dark and Dystopian.

  2. Unfortunately (at least for this point of view), things are going in the opposite direction in American education. For 100 years or so, the hallmark of American education were local, autonomous small school systems. That started to change dramatically in the 60's, when the federal and state governments began to have more input and control over local schools in the quest to integrate the schools racially. So while I think one of the problems of the Wake County School system is that it is so large and encompasses so many different communities (small towns like Knightdale to urban Raleigh to rich suburb Cary), that was done in the 60's for racial equity purposes, because the Raleigh students (who went to a different school system) were so predominantly black while Wake County was so predominantly white.

    That trend continued in the 70s with other civil rights issues, such as handicapped accessibility and gender equity. Then, in the 80s, businesses got into the act, complaining about the poor quality of public school graduates and pushing for more uniform graduation standards across the country. This led to the push for standardized testing everywhere. In the 90s and 2000s, things became even more uniform as a means of cutting costs by insisting all schools in the state buy the same textbooks and other standardization that was supposed to make school operations more efficient.

    Even the charter school movement, which was supposed to foster local-level creativity and adaptation, has been moving towards more standardization. The trend in charter schools is to expand programs run by national organizations such as KIPP and replicate them in other or newer charter schools. On one hand, it makes sense to try a program that has proven successful in a different location; on the other, people argue about how successful such programs have really been (there has been all sorts of manipulation of these test-driven results), and I worry about corporations taking over our public school systems.

    If you read my December 17 post ( about the Trigger law in California that allows parents to take over the management of a failing school, that seems like an interesting experiment. However, the one time it has been activated so far (I think there is still a law suit over whether it was done properly or no), the parents chose to hand the management of the new school over to a company that is running several other charter schools. So, again, that makes me a little nervous...