Two months ago, I posted "In Tata we trust?" — note the question mark. The gist of it was, Wake Schools Superintendent Tony Tata's Blue Plan for student assignment seemed like a reasonable path out of the muck that the school system's been sunk in since the '09 elections ... and Tata, the former general, was a refreshing, surprising success as the supe.
But of course, he'd only been in town four months, so prudence dictated that any praise take the form of a question :)
Today, Mack Paul is out with a statement on behalf of the Wake Democratic Party, and there's no question mark in sight. Mack likes Tata, says he's doing a good job, and contrasts Tata's "pragmatic approach" with the "ideological agenda" of the five-member Republican school board majority. The full statement is copied below.
In fact, Paul's statement is all about aligning the Democratic school board candidates with Tata ahead of the '11 elections in October, while also pointing out that Tata's compromise Blue Plan faces a major impediment in the form of Republican Board Chair Ron Margiotta.
The election campaign has yet to heat up, and it remains to be seen whether Margiotta, the only Republican member on the ballot and the leader of the board that brought Tata to Wake County, will get behind Tata's plan or not.
Thus far, he hasn't — indeed, Margiotta's been heard to pooh-pooh a key aspect of Tata's approach: The need, about which Tata's been crystal clear, to reserve a sufficient number of seats in high-achieving schools for kids being transported from neighborhoods of low achievement.
In other words, Tata wants diversity in every school via student achievement levels (not race any more or the family's socioeconomic status).
Margiotta, along with fellow Republican John Tedesco, wants neighborhood schools, not diversity. Or so it seems.
There are five school board seats on the ballot in October. The other four are held by Democrats, two of whom (Kevin Hill, Keith Sutton) are running for re-election; in the other two, Jim Martin is seeking to succeed the outgoing Anne McLaurin as District 5's Democratic rep, while in District 6 Christine Kushner is the Democrat most likely to take over from the departing Carolyn Morrison.
Sutton's said that, instead of Tata's Blue Plan, he'd prefer the Green Plan that Tata put on the table as an option only to pronounce it inferior to Blue. Hill, Martin and Kushner are, as far as I know, still weighing their positions.
Meanwhile, within the Republican bloc Debra Goldman has wavered, sometimes seeming to be with Tata, sometimes with Margiotta for neighborhood schools. Should she come down on the side of Tata & Blue-with-sufficient-seats, she could swing things in favor of a compromise with the Democrats.
That's what Paul is referring to when he mentions Margiotta's desire to knock of Kevin Hill in District 3 or perhaps Jim Martin in District 5 and push the Republican majority from 5-4 to 6-3, making it "Goldman proof" in the event that Goldman goes her own way.
Here's Paul's complete statement, you can judge for yourself what its purpose is:
Tata Deserves Praise at Six Month Mark
Six months ago, Tony Tata arrived for his first day of work as Wake County's new school superintendent. For those of us who had observed the school board's actions with concern and dismay, Tata's hiring was one more slap in the face. As a talking head for Fox News with 18 months of education experience, Tata fit perfectly into the board majority's efforts to take the school system in an ideological direction.
Tata also arrived at a time of tremendous turmoil. As noted in AdvanEd's accreditation report, the Board majority wasted little time after the 2009 election to "launch a premeditated act that resulted in destabilizing the school system and community." Before Tata arrived, the board deadlocked on an assignment plan and devolved into name calling. Moreover, its failure to follow basic governance standards placed the County's accreditation status at risk.
Given the board majority's ideological expectations for Tata and the unstable situation he faced on February 1, Tata deserves praise. His biggest accomplishment has been calming a community on the edge, which took several gutsy moves.
First, he slowed down the pace of dramatic policy shifts and reengaged the community in the process. He did this by making himself available to stakeholders across the political spectrum. By taking time to listen to a wide range of views, Tata has gained a deeper understanding of Wake County values. This approach also helped compensate for the school board's actions to restrict public participation, which had outraged parents used to addressing the board and led to a lawsuit for open meetings violations.
Second, Tata publicly acknowledged the excellent reputation and quality of Wake County schools. In contrast, the board majority has made a number of derogatory comments about the school system. For example, John Tedesco trumpeted to a Tea Party audience that our schools are "not good." The AdvanEd report cited instances where the board majority fabricated negative data on student achievement. The board's actions created significant anxiety in the community. Not only did it injure efforts to recruit business, it led many families to expect wholesale changes to the school system. Tata's comments helped alleviate that anxiety.
Third, Tata has temporarily calmed the volatile discussion over student assignment. Reframing this divisive issue, Tata has offered plans with greater flexibility and choice. He also made access to high achieving schools a key element of the plans up for discussion. Implicit in this position is the fundamental principle that all children must have access to a good school regardless of the affluence of their community. This is the legacy of Wake County schools that cannot be lost in today's debate.
While Tata's first six months can be counted as a success, the most challenging days lie ahead. A final assignment plan has yet to be released. Chairman Ron Margiotta has already dismissed the idea that access to high achieving schools must be embedded in any assignment plan. He has expressed a desire to "Goldman proof" the board. In other words, he wants a majority that can advance an ideological agenda.
That is why this fall's school board election is so crucial. It will determine whether Wake County's legacy of excellence built on equal access continues. Regardless of Tata's pragmatic approach, he ultimately answers to a board. Let's hope the next six months are as successful as the last.