School & District Management

Superintendent Fired in Wake County, N.C.

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — October 01, 2012 4 min read
Anthony J. Tata, the superintendent of Wake County, N.C., schools, enters the school board room for a press conference last week. Earlier in the day, the board voted 5-4 to fire him.

The Wake County, N.C., school board voted last week to dismiss Superintendent Anthony J. Tata, the latest flare-up in a long-running controversy involving a district that is nationally known for its bold school integration plans.

Mr. Tata, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general, has led the 150,000-student district since January 2011. The 5-4 decision to fire him leaves the district without a permanent leader as it confronts instructional shifts, rapid population growth, and yet another anticipated shift in its closely watched integration efforts. But observers said the board’s action also has implications for the national conversation about student-assignment and integration plans and the role of partisan politics in school boards.

Stephen Gainey, who had previously been the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources, will serve as the acting superintendent while the board conducts a national search for Mr. Tata’s successor. Mr. Tata will receive his annual salary of $253,625 for one year in exchange for terminating his contract before it expires in December 2014.

The district, which has its headquarters in Cary, N.C., includes the city of Raleigh.

Leadership Style

The school board said Mr. Tata’s dismissal was not politically motivated, despite a vote that fell along party lines, with Democratic members leading the call for Mr. Tata to leave. While contentious, the dismissal did not come as a surprise to most of the county’s education community, said Tim Simmons, the vice president for communications of the Wake Education Partnership, a local advocacy organization.

Wake County District at a Glance

Total enrollment:
149,529

Number of schools:
169

Percent of students getting free and reduced-price meals: 33.3%

Percent of white students:
49.3%

Percent of African-American students:
24.7%

Percent of Latino students:
15%

SOURCE: Wake County Public Schools

Mr. Tata, who was trained at the Broad Superintendents Academy, a foundation-backed program for aspiring district leaders, many from nontraditional backgrounds, is popular and built relationships in the community, Mr. Simmons said. But, he said, there was speculation after the 2011 board elections, in which Democratic members gained a majority, that the superintendent—appointed when Republicans had the edge—would be replaced. Board-election ballots don’t include party labels, but members’ affiliations are widely known.

The board downplayed talk of a new superintendent at the time, but board Chairman Kevin Hill said in a Sept. 26 press conference that circumstances had changed, and that the board’s majority had lost confidence in Mr. Tata. Mr. Hill said he was concerned by claims that Mr. Tata’s leadership style did not allow for dissenting views and for teacher voices to be heard, and that, while Mr. Tata had bridged partisan divides early in his tenure, friction had built as time passed.

Despite the intention that school board elections and decisions in North Carolina be nonpartisan, the current environment in the Wake County system is politically fractious, said Jacob L. Vigdor, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, in nearby Durham. He said that Mr. Tata’s selection by the previous board exemplifies what he sees as a more frequent tendency by school boards to try to bring rapid, politically motivated change in policies to their district as opposed to pursuing incremental change.

Implications for Integration

School integration efforts and student diversity are perpetually in the spotlight in Wake County, which drew national attention in 2000 for creating a school-assignment plan based on socioeconomics rather than race. That plan was dismantled, however, after Republicans gained control of the board in 2009, largely because of voter dissatisfaction with transportation issues and frequent changes in school assignments. The district moved to choice-based school assignments in 2011-12.

The current board, though, has put racial, economic, and academic diversity back on the front burner. It directed the district to create a new plan—the third in as many years—for 2013-14 that accounts for proximity, stability (that is, not continually reassigning students), and student achievement.

District administrators proposed a plan that shifts back to linking students’ school assignments to their home addresses, while also factoring in student achievement, but the board’s Democrats worried that it didn’t go far enough to ensure diversity and equity.

Mr. Tata’s dismissal was partly linked to the board’s lack of confidence that he would implement a plan that aligned with its priorities, according to John Brittain, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia.

Especially with constantly changing student-assignment plans, the management of transportation, construction, and logistics has proved to be a challenge in the rapidly growing school district.

But Wake County’s transportation system was in turmoil this fall: After the district attempted to transport more students using fewer buses, stories of lost, late, and overcrowded buses hit the local newspapers, and the district’s chief operations officer, Donald Haydon Jr., resigned in mid-September.

At a Sept. 25 press event, Mr. Tata thanked district staff for their service and cited a list of accomplishments, including academic gains for low-income high school students and a reduction in the number of schools where fewer than 70 percent of students scored below proficient on state tests. He turned away questions and said, in an email to Education Week, that he would not release any new statements to the press until this week.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the October 03, 2012 edition of Education Week as Wake County, N.C., Board Fires Schools Superintendent

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