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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

My take on Tony Tata

Readers outside Raleigh might not recognize the name of Tony Tata, who was fired this week from his position of Superintendent, Wake County Public Schools (the 18th-largest school system in the nation). I have a few things to say about Tata's firing, but my comments apply to public servants in general.

You've probably heard the story of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Politics in Wake County have degenerated along those lines, although nobody has been literally killed. It appears impossible for Democrats and Republicans to work together. We see this in the U.S. Congress too, but it's more profound at the local level. Our institutions of government do not function well when the actors are polarized to this degree.

Tata's predecessor was run out of office, and Tata was chosen, by an ideologically driven but thin Republican majority on the school board at the time. Mistake One. Objectively, how well did Tata do his job? There were good points and bad points. I'm not inclined to defend him, but I will say that running a big school system is difficult enough -- particularly when budget cuts roll downhill from state government -- without having a political overlay on every decision.

Were Tata's bad points so extreme that he was justifiably fired by today's thin Democratic majority on the board? Not from what I've read. Mistake Two. At the very least, Democratic ideology made Tata the enemy unless he proved otherwise; thus the atmosphere was confrontational from Tata's first day on the job, and it intensified after Democrats took charge. That's not right. Sometimes people must look beyond tit-for-tat.

Actors of both parties are to blame, therefore, for the mess we have. Who would take the job of Superintendent now? A precedent having been set two years ago and confirmed this week that the Superintendent is in essence a political appointment, any incoming Superintendent would know that his or her job lasts only until the next time Republicans win a majority on the school board.

I think of Dempsey Benton, former City Manager of Raleigh who served under both Democrat-dominated and Republican-dominated city councils. That's what we need desperately. Benton's success was attributable in part to his own skills but also to a spirit of compromise and forbearance in a less polarized time. Somehow the Hatfields and McCoys in Wake County will have to learn how to cohabit and cooperate for the good of the public. I'm anxious to see who steps up to this first.