CARY - A Democratic majority on the Wake County school board fired Superintendent Tony Tata on Tuesday, ending his closely-watched, often controversial tenure after a little less than 20 months.
The move that will cost taxpayers one years salary $253,625 a sum that allows the board to dismiss him without citing specific cause. His contract was through Dec. 31, 2014 to run the states largest school system.
Stephen Gainey was named acting superintendent for a period of up to 60 days. Hes currently assistant superintendent in charge of human resources.
Tata, 53, came into office at the end of January 2011, selected by a Republican board majority. The vote to end his job came by a five-four margin on the Democratic-led board which swept into office last year and often clashed with Tata.
State law doesnt allow school districts to use state money to fire a superintendent so Wake will pay the $253,625 out of its local savings.
Tata was not at Tuesdays meeting, but the separation agreement says that he was willing to continue as superintendent..
Democratic board members didnt disclose at the meeting the reasons for their decision.
Today is a sad day for our school system and community, but nothing has changed about our commitment to students, said Democratic board chairman Kevin Hill, who had said during last falls reelection campaign that Tata was doing a good job and was expected to be superintendent for years to come.
This is not a personal decision, added Democratic board member Jim Martin, who denied the move was a partisan decision. This is a personnel decision and this is a large difference.
Democratic board member Susan Evans said the decision wasnt based on any one item but a culmination of items which she said she couldnt discuss because theyre personnel-related.
This was not an easy decision for any of us to get to, Evans said. Were not gloating about this.
Republican school board members, who had all voted to hire Tata, railed at the firing.
Im fundamentally and 100 percent opposed, said Republican board member John Tedesco, who added that the firing would have long-term implications on the 150,000-student district. Its an epic failure of this board that we have come to this. This is no reflection of Mr. Tata.
With the school system working on a school construction bond issue on the ballot next year, Tedesco said he wouldnt even trust the school board with my lunch money.
Fellow Republican board member Debra Goldman was in near tears as she accused her Democratic colleagues of acting for partisan reasons. She said she wore a white ribbon to symbolize a harbinger of great loss.
I grieve for our children, our parents and our staff, Goldman said.
Goldman blamed the firing on the influence of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a group thats often been critical of Tata. Two of the new Democratic board members were leaders in the group before their election last fall.
Earlier, board members first agreed to add a vote on Tata to the agenda, after Republican members opposed an identical motion on Monday.
We need to get this out of closed session and share with the public what is happening, Goldman said.
Republican members moved that consideration of the item, universally considered to be potential action on Tatas employment status, take place in public session. In addition, members Goldman and Deborah Prickett moved that that a public comment session be added to Tuesdays agenda before the vote on Tata.
The five-member Democratic majority rejected the motion for public comment and the entire panel went into closed session shortly after 3:10 p.m. Board members returned to open session an hour later.
Concerns over Tatas tenure had heightened after a series of public disputes with Democrats on the board, complaints about the new student assignment plan and a protracted period of serious dysfunction in the systems busing of more than 70,000 students.
Tata was the chief operating officer of the D.C. Public Schools when the Republican board majority hired him in December 2010. None of the Democrats on the board then voted for him. Previously, he had been a U.S. Army brigadier general who had attended the Broad Superintendents Academy, a program that trains non-educators to work in school systems.
During the first year of Tatas tenure, he was widely credited with getting the school board to stop its partisan bickering and with calming the community.
AdvancED, an international accreditation agency, praised Tata in a January report that saw the group raise the accreditation status of Wakes high schools. Jennifer Oliver, a spokeswoman for AdvancED, said Tuesday that the firing will not affect the districts accreditation.
Relations worsened after Democrats swept last falls elections to regain the board majority. Tata has had several public run-ins with all three new Democratic board members Susan Evans, Christine Kushner and Jim Martin.
The school board met for nearly four hours on Monday, most of the time in closed session, to discuss Tatas job status.
Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said Monday he had reached out to school board leaders Kevin Hill and Keith Sutton, urging them to proceed cautiously. He cited concerns that Tatas dismissal could complicate efforts to develop a new student assignment plan or get a school construction bond referendum passed next year.
Mr. Tatas performance regarding closing achievement gaps and improving classroom performance seemed to have the district moving in the right direction some of the innovation that we have seen has certainly been appreciated in the business community, Schmitt said Monday. He helped (provide) stability at a point in time when we were very unstable. He did, I thought, a great job reaching out to the community.