by Cash Michaels
(published Jan. 6, 2011 in The Carolinian Newspaper)
Over his distinguished 28-year US Army career, Anthony Tata may have dealt with many an enemy in places like
Bosnia and Afghanistan, but if the response to his hiring as Wake County's newest schools superintendent is any indication,
he's never quite faced the kind of opposition he's in for now.
Indeed, among the many smiling faces and well-wishers he'll be encountering today and tomorrow as the retired Army brigadier general meets people in Wake on a two-day tour before officially assuming the post Jan. 31, will be protesters outside of the Barbecue Lodge on Capital Blvd. this evening.
Their concern - the new Wake superintendent not only has a miniscule 19-months of experience as a school administrator - with none of it in classroom instruction - but he'll also contractually be allowed to continue his right-wing political punditry online and on television while on the job here.
Tata is already on record calling his former Commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama, "an empty suit" who is "..not vested in the military and not vested in the security of this nation."
Tata has also publicly praised Tea Party favorite and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as being more qualified to be president than Pres. Obama.
The Barbecue Lodge visit tonight serves only to reinforce his critics' fears that Tata's divisive politics, in addition to what has already occurred on the politically-partisan Wake School Board, will further diminish the school system.
Tata, accompanied by Wake School Board Chair Ron Margiotta, is scheduled to speak to
the right-wing Wake County Taxpayers Association at 6:30 p.m. Margiotta, a conservative member of the WCTA and leader of the right-wing school board majority that many allege intends to racially resegregate Wake Public Schools, is not only personally accompanying Tata, but has chosen who Tata will, and will not meet with today and Friday (at presstime Wednesday, Margiotta has refused to release Tata's two-day schedule, though it's public record, saying that it still isn't finished).
The only other confirmed Tata gathering is a 4 p.m. press conference Friday at WCPSS headquarters (at presstime Wednesday an emergency closed school board meeting was called for Friday at 5 p.m. to apparently vote on a matter dealing with Tata).
Observers say it is extraordinarily unusual for new school system superintendent to start a new job with a boatload of partisan political baggage. The job is hard enough trying to deal with ever-shrinking budgets, demands for higher student achievement, and the pressures from the public, business and political communities to improve.
But when Margiotta and his Republican colleagues dramatically took over the Wake school board in December 2009, they made it clear from their opening statements, after literally thanking the Wake Republican Party for its election assistance, that it would be their way, or the highway.
Margiotta and company immediately hired former NC Republican Party attorney Thomas Farr as in-house counsel to prepare to do legal battle with the NCNAACP, which had been threatening to file suit upon the first sign of racial resegregation, which they did,
The Republican-led board then appointed the John W. Pope Civitas Institute, the Raleigh-based conservative policy group, to officially orientate new school board members. Why a partisan organization was needed for this function has never been made clear.
It is not unusual for any one of Margiotta's board majority to refer to their Democratic board colleagues as "the opposition." Indeed, the chairman's non-legendary quip about "look at the animals...coming out of their cages," directed at outraged audience members during a meeting last spring, has clearly cemented the "us against them" atmosphere that pervades at the school system.
And now, the controversial and rushed 4-2 selection - made on Christmas Eve two-weeks ago with two school board members absent - of Anthony Tata as Wake superintendent. His $250,000 contract had already been signed before the board officially hired him.
Tata, a West Point alum who rose and Virginia native who rose through the Army ranks to serve as deputy commander under Gen. David Petraeus and former Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is now walking into a firestorm of problems that will challenge his every skill.
Not only is the Wake County School System growing faster and bigger beyond its capacity to handle, but it faces at least a $1000 million shortfall in funding from the state this year, a serious investigation from AdvanEd that could result in the deaccreditation of 24 high schools, and an even more serious federal investigation from the US Dept.. of Education's Office of Civil Rights concerning a racial bias complaint from the NCNAACP.
In addition, even the Republican majority that hired Tata is split and dysfunctional.
While many people, despite the controversy, say they'd still like to give Tata a chance, others are already wary of the baggage he brings.
“It’s going to be a huge learning curve for this man,” Dr. Carolyn Morrison, a former principal and one of the four Democrats on the Wake School Board, told the North Carolina Independent News. “I’m sure he’s well-trained to kill. I wanted someone who was well-trained to educate.”
""I applaud his service to our nation," former Wake School Board member Lori Millberg told the Eastern Wake News. "But he clearly does not have an educational background. I think it speaks volumes that they spent all that money on a search and could not find a single educator who thought like they did. Educators don't think like that. I think that's why they had to find somebody who isn't an educator - somebody who's a politician."
Even in Washington, DC, where Tata has served for the past 19 months as the chief operating officer of the District of Columbia Public School District managing food service, purchasing and school supplies, his tenure there is considered no big deal.
"I suppose the argument can be made that so long as Tata has a chief educational officer under him, all is well, and given the financial stresses school districts face, his experience in D.C. is relevant -- except of course the things for which he was responsible in D.C. have not been all that well run," Kenneth Bernstein, a noted educator in the Washington, D.C. area, told the Washington Post recently.
Post education columnist Valerie Strauss called Tata's hiring as superintendent by Wake County, "A wrongheaded experiment in school leadership."
She even went after Tata's letter to Wake County citizens regarding the improvements he hoped to bring to the school system from DC.
Tata wrote, "...we developed a teacher assessment system, IMPACT, which combines student test scores and unannounced, subjective evaluations to determine and reward teacher effectiveness. As the leader of Wake County Public School System, I will energetically reap best practices not only from DC Public Schools, but also from across the country to enhance what is already an innovative school system."
Strauss, apparently no fan of of DC School District Chancellor Michele Rhee, Tata's former boss, dismissed the claim.
"Best practices from D.C. public schools?," Strauss asked. "Nothing that Rhee instituted has been shown to be successful in the long run, and even in the short run, but already Tata is talking about IMPACT as if it actually works well. Saying it does doesn’t make it. But then again, can you remember another time when education reform has so ignored the realities of public education?"