Emails detail tension between Tata, school board - WNCN: News, Weather

Emails detail tension between Tata, school board

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Emails released by the Wake County Public School System expose a tense relationship between former Superintendent Tony Tata and school board members and illustrate how frustrated parents became with a busing fiasco at the start of the school year.

"I want to congratulate you on allowing the school bus fiasco to become an even bigger disaster on week two," one parent wrote to Tata. "The sheer ineptitude of your transportation office is in plain sight for all of Wake and [North Carolina] to see."

She continued, "We of MacGregor West and Downs will not rest until that whole department and your complete office are held solely responsible."

At the start of the school year in August 2012, parents erupted in frustration as buses were late to pick up students. Parents reported lost bus drivers, late buses and buses missing their stops. Parents and children were also concerned about overcrowding on buses.

Former head of transportation and facilities, Don Haydon, said one of the problems that led to the busing issues was that the WCPSS tried to save money by cutting dozens of buses, and dropping from three days of training for bus drivers to just one day.

The school system reduced its fleet to try to save money and meet efficiency standards. At the start of the school year, there were 52 fewer buses on routes from the previous year.

Transportation staff later added 34 buses back into the system, including seven in Apex. The additional buses came after the system received thousands of complaints about the buses being late.

In response to the busing problems, Tata and the school board called for an audit. However in the more than 3,400 pages of emails, a confrontational tone took shape between Democratic and Republican board members, as well as Tata.

"I am formally suggesting/requesting that Mr. Tata initiate a full audit of the Transportation Department, and the services that we are (or are not) offering to students in terms of any/all related transportation activity," Goldman wrote to board members, Tata and school board attorney Ann Majestic on Sept. 12, 2012.

Board Chairman Kevin Hill responded, "I've asked Keith [Sutton] to take the lead, working with [Christine] Kushner to work on the details. Please be mindful that this will not clear up the current situation."

Given that Hill, Sutton and Kushner are all democratic board members, Goldman insisted the audit be independent to void any possible partisanship and called Hill's decision "inappropriate."

"I am highly opposed to Board members doing this," Goldman wrote. "If you insist on this ... it must be done with a nonpartisan team."

In his response, Tata addressed Goldman's concerns, explaining, "The Vice Chair leading the audit with a board member from the minority [Republican] party seems more fair and more likely to yield a non-politicized result."

Clearly frustrated, Hill wrote, "It frustrates me that Mrs. Goldman and Mr. Malone would think that Board leadership (Keith and me) would task 'ourselves' (the Board) to audit the Transportation Department."

Hill added, "I am also frustrated that you [Tata] reinforce the 'partisanship' card while sharing your concerns."

Less than a month after the fiasco, on Sept. 17, 2012, Haydon announced his resignation from his position as head of transportation and facilities for WCPSS.

"There's no question in my mind he was pushed," former school board member Beverley Clark said at the time. Clark said Haydon "brought a very ethical of view and a great understanding that it all work together."

Lynn Edmonds, with Great Schools for Wake, explained that she was "sick" from the news of Haydon's resignation, explaining that she felt Haydon was a scapegoat.

"This was Tony Tata's plan," she said. "I was in those meetings when the transportation department was presenting their information. They had concerns and I don't think their advice was heeded."

Following Haydon's resignation, Tata was fired as WCPSS superintendent, and Stephen Gainey was named the acting superintendent. Board members voted along party lines to fire Tata, claiming he lacked leadership.

"I just want things to return to the way they were. We were top three in the nation and, you know, things are a lot different now," parent Trevis Bailey said after Tata's firing. "I hate to see anyone lose their job, but hopefully things will get better."

Other parents showed their support for Tata, writing in an email to school board members prior to his firing, "If the rumors pertaining to the possibility of releasing him from his contract are true, it will be one more bad decision by [the] school board. ... "Get back to work. Support Tony Tata and follow his lead."

Another wrote, "We have [three] children in the WCPSS. We are pleased with Mr. Tata's track record thus far and wish for him to stay on the job in his current role."

In an email to former board member Chris Malone, a Cary parent wrote, "I am in shock regarding the board's hasty decision to fire Mr. Tata. I thank you for voting to retain him. I am trying to understand what he did or failed to do that caused [five] board member to vote for his firing at this time."

Addressing a veil of partisanship that has embattled the school board for several years, Malone wrote, "It's real simple, they were waiting like a coiled rattlesnake waiting for a moment of vulnerability for purposes of political cover to strike. I like my word -- disgusted."

In a surprise move earlier this year, Gov. Pat McCrory announced that he had tapped Tata to be the head of transportation for the state.

When making the announcement, McCrory said of Tata, "If he can do it in Afghanistan under fire, surely he can do it in North Carolina," referring to Tata's military experience.

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