Former Army general named new Wake superintendent

Published Thu, Dec 23, 2010 03:39 AM
from THE NEWS AND OBSERVER

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RALEIGH — A divided Wake County school board tapped retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony J. Tata today to be the new superintendent in charge of the state’s largest school system.

Mirroring many of the votes that have split them over the past year, the officially non-partisan board split 4-2 along party lines with Republicans backing Tata. Democrats Kevin Hill and Carolyn Morrison voted no.  Keith Sutton and Anne McLaurin were absent, complaining about lack of notice about the meeting, which was scheduled Tuesday.

A motion backed by Morrison and Hill to defer the vote to Jan. 4 to allow for parental comment was defeated by the same 4-2 vote. But both said they’d back Tata now that he’s hired.

GOP school board members praised Tata’s leadership skills, saying his military background are what the school district need to help with the budget and improve academic achievement.

“He will be the CEO of a $1.2 billion business,” said GOP school board member John Tedesco. “There are few and far between the number of leaders of his caliber who have entered Wake County.”

Tata, 51, who was not at today’s meeting, but will start work in Wake on Jan. 31, according to board member Debra Goldman, who headed the search committee. He will receive a salary of $250,000. His contract runs through June 2014.

“I am humbled to be selected as the next superintendent of the Wake County Public School System,” Tata said in a written statement. “I intend to focus the system’s impressive resources on the academic achievement of our students and on closing the achievement gap in student performance.”

His predecessor, Del Burns, who announced his resignation in February because of his opposition to board decisions such as the elimination of the socioeconomic diversity policy, had a base salary of $273,000. Donna Hargens, Wake’s chief academic officer, has been serving as interim superintendent.

Tata said his first step will be to ask Hargens to stay on as chief academic officer. Board members heaped Hargens with praise for her work filling in for Burns, saying she and other senior administrators would be able to help offset Tata not being a career educator.

Tata, has been the chief operating officer of the D.C. Public School System, where he has been in charge of purchasing, food service, technology and other support functions.

“He’s not a touchy-feely guy who will hold people’s hands” said former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who recruited Tata to work in the troubled school system. “He’s very goal oriented. He was a general so he knows about leadership. He knows how to get the job done.”

Previously, Tata, 51, spent 28 years in the military, rising to the rank of brigadier general — a career that included stints in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Panama and the Philippines. He’s been a battalion commander for the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg and the deputy director of of a group with a $4.5 billion budget charged with developing ways to protect soldiers from improvised explosive devices.

“Gen. Tata is not afraid of the challenge, as evidenced by his superior leadership talents with our troops,” said GOP board member Deborah Prickett.

Tata was recommended, along with a list of other top candidates, by Heidrick & Struggles, an Illinois-based executive search firm hired by the GOP board majority. The search process has been largely closed with no information released about any other applicants for the position.

Goldman said more than 120 candidates were contacted with 11 names going to the school board. She said Tata was one of three finalists.

GOP school board members said that keeping the names confidential improved the qualify of the applicants.

Board members said they chose Heidrick, in part, because of the firm’s ability to recruit beyond traditional educators. The firm was paid $82,500 plus expenses to do the search, nearly twice as much as the nearest bidder.

Tata is also an author of four military action thrillers, a commentator on conservative websites and a frequent guest on national television network news shows.

The board was able to hire Tata because the GOP members pushed through changes this summer that eliminated the requirement that the superintendent be an educator.

Democratic board members objected today to both Tata’s background and the hurried pace and lack of openness in the hiring process.

“Nothing in his background of experience suggests that he is prepared to lead the largest school district in North Carolina,” said Morrison, a retired Wake principal.

Morrison added that she felt that Wake “could do better for the parents, children, staff and taxpayers” than to hire Tata.

But supporters cited Tata’s work in D.C. and his training at the Broad Superintendents Academy in California, a program designed to train business people and retired members of the military in how to become superintendents in urban school districts. The program is run on extended weekends over a 10-month period.

While still not typical, some large school districts have turned to non-educators to be superintendents. From 2006 to 2008, retired Vice Admiral David Brewer served as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school system in the nation.

Last month, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tapped former USA Today publisher Cathleen Black to run the nation’s largest school system.

Tata will take charge of Wake, whose 143,000 students make it the 18th largest school district in the nation, during a time of major challenges.

Wake is facing the likelihood of layoffs, larger class sizes and program cuts to make up for the projected loss of more than $100 million in state and federal dollars next year.

Wake is also dealing with a federal civil rights investigation over its student assignment practices and a special review by the group that accredits its high schools. Both investigations stem from complaints filed by the state NAACP.

Tata will also have to help the board implement the new student assignment model that will move Wake toward neighborhood schools. “We need someone who can run a large organization,” said GOP board member Chris Malone. “He’s the right guy.”

by Thomas Goldsmith
thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929 and keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534
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