Monday, January 30, 2012

Happy Anniversary, Tony Tata

So today's newspaper reminded me that it is the one year anniversary of the head of the Wake County Public School System, retired Brigadier General Anthony (Tony) Tata.   If you have been reading my blog for over a year (and if you have been, bless you!), you know that I had my doubts about Mr. Tata.  I doubted his experience, I doubted his political orientation, I doubted his former boss when he was head of operations in the DC Public School System (that is, Michelle Rhee)....but most of all, I doubted his bosses, or at least the Republican majority who voted him into office in a rather dubious manner right before Christmas of 2010.

So it seems only fair that I report my assessment of the man after a year on the job.  And that assessment is ... relatively positive.

As I said at the time (in one of my most-frequently read blog post, Wake School Board Majority Should Be Ashamed), the Republicans on the Board did him no favor in the way they pushed through his appointment, seemingly in the dead of the night, with no public notice and some of the Democrats on the Board unable to attend a meeting called with 48 hours notice only days before Christmas.  It was not an auspicious way to begin a job, and I did express my sympathy to Mr. Tata at that time.

However, I did review an interview he had,  as well as his first statement after accepting the position,  and found room for hope in both.  He seemed like a nice man, a reasonable man, and, most of all, a man who knows that you don't win a campaign--military, educational, social, it doesn't matter--by castigating, blaming, and demoralizing your "troops" (what ever their actual jobs may be) on the front line.

So I've not met the man, so my assessment is based only on what I've seen going on in Wake County schools.  I believe our basic political beliefs are not aligned.  We probably have fairly different visions for how the children who attend Wake County Public Schools would be best served.

However, there is no denying that things have been so much more peaceful, respectful, civil, and hence, productive, in 2011 then they were in 2010.  And I attribute a lot of that to Mr. Tata, since that is the major thing that changed between the two years (the elections were held in 2009 and the end of 2011).

Superintendent Tata has apparently been able to smooth the waters of the often fractious School Board--which to me is a big deal.  I'm OK with people disagreeing--our entire political system is based on that reality--but the Board shenanigans had become not just a local, not just a statewide, but a national embarrassment (when Steven Colbert is making fun of you, you should know you've gone too far).  Things have gone so much more cordially and low key in the past year, and I credit Tata with at least some of that.

I also really acknowledge Superintendent Tata for his efforts to reach out and talk with the community, even those who opposed his appointment.  To me, this should be a given.  Again, our system was set up with the idea that we might disagree, but that the majority would find a way to work with the majority.   Sadly, that philosophy has been abandoned lately in our national politics.  But it is great to see a School Superintendent who is trying to connect with all facets of the community, even those who disagree with his political orientation.  (Although he hasn't, to my knowledge, met with the homeschooling community, although I think that could begin a very enriching dialogue that would benefit both sides.)

Along those lines, the agency that was threatening to withdraw accreditation from the WCPSS in 2010 has come again, and found things much approved.  It upgraded our accreditation status to accreditation advised (subject to a few more improvements), and commented positively both on the Board's better behavior and Superintendent Tata's "stablizing influence."  Again, as I stated in a previous blog post, this is a big deal to me.

Next, I'm pleased that things have been going along the lines that I advised in a blog post of a year ago, Four Pieces of Advise for Anthony Tata (and One for the Board of Ed).  While he hasn't adopted all my words of wisdom....YET....he has stuck to one of my top ones, which was to abandon his conservative commentary that he maintained while he was working with the DC School System.  Different place, different job, different sensibilities.  According to the News and Observer, Tata has steadfastly refused to comment on military-related or other conservative topics, sticking strictly to talking about the Wake County School System.  I'm sure it was hard, as an ex-military man,  not to comment on, say, the death of Osama bin Laden.  But the fact that he refused to do so makes him much more credible as the head of our school system.

Finally, he has produced.  We have a plan, and a plan with enough information that parents can actually comment on and/or do something with.  I don't necessarily agree with his plan.  But at least it is something concrete and with enough specifics that parents can react to.   From what I can tell--it is very confusing to dwell into specific details--I don't agree with the overarching philosophy, but it is beginning of a system that is more responsive to family needs and request.  It is, at least, something to work with.  With the way that the Board was acting in 2010, having something even nominally reasonable is a great accomplishment.

So all in all, I say pretty well done, Mr. Tata.  I have issues with the school plans that you have produced.  But I can still admire what you have accomplished, given the cards you were dealt.  Of course, the election results last November shuffled the decks a good bit, so who knows what lies in our future.  But at least things are operating on a more civil and reasonable basis, and we can all be glad of that.

PS--Do I agree with the Republicans who think we should be extending his employment contract already?  No.  Do I think the Democrats should (or will) kick him to the curb?  No.  He's made a good start.  But let's see things play out a bit more before we decide whether he should continue to be Superintendent past 2014.

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