If you hadn’t heard it or read about it, the superintendent of Wake County schools, the state’s largest school system and the 16th largest in the nation, was abruptly fired last week. And in the fallout, the Wake school board has been publicly derided as incompetent, foolish, selfish, partisan, wrongheaded, a joke and – I love this one – “from another planet.”
Those are the kinds of words the tomfoolery of past Charlotte-Mecklenburg school boards has elicited.
But the partisan divide on the Wake board is more than the ideological skirmishes that dog many school boards that bill themselves as nonpartisan. Wake’s board has been in an ideological tug of war over school assignment and diversity. And it presents a cautionary tale to other boards about the havoc extreme partisanship can wreak on a school system. For all the heckling CMS got for enlisting help to bridge differences and build trust, that wasn’t such a bad idea. A little bridge-building might have helped the Wake board avoid the calamities it has faced the last two years.
The first breakdown came after Republicans took control of the Wake board in 2009. Suburban voters upset about the system’s reassignment plans and busing ousted incumbents and gave the GOP a 5-4 majority. That majority pushed out then Superintendent Del Burns after he criticized the board for partisan political “gamesmanship” and voted in 2010 to hire former Brigadier Gen. Anthony Tata, an outspoken conservative who had worked in the D.C. public school system and as a Fox News commentator.
Upset by the board’s push for an assignment plan that created less diverse and more high poverty schools, voters made a turnaround in 2011, ousting Republicans and creating a 5-4 Democratic majority. The board wasted no time pushing Tata to revise the school assignment plan but the friction between Tata and the new board majority was too much, board members say. So last week, after the school year got off to a disastrous start with school buses showing up hours late or not at all to pick up students, Tata was canned in a, you guessed it, 5-4 vote. And board members gave him a severance equal to his annual salary of more than $250,000.
Soon afterward, the Republican-dominated Wake County board of commissioners jumped into the fray: Board chair Paul Coble said he was putting on hold talks about a school bond referendum that was being contemplated for a May 2013 vote.
Oh, what a tangled web.
Some are happy to see Tata go, noting that he was a graduate of the Broad Foundation’s academy and that the market-based and corporate-backed reforms he pushed – neighborhood schools, merit pay, etc. – were wrongheaded. Some said he was brusque and disrespectful. Others said he had demoralized many Wake educators. His public reprimand of and charges of ethics violations against Democratic board members for associating with a pro-education group didn’t help either.
But others are not happy. Parents turned out at the last school board meeting to protest his ouster. They said he has improved student achievement, raised the accreditation status of high schools and created two needed single-sex leadership academies.
Some even credited him with reducing partisan bickering among board members. If true, that clearly didn’t translate into board members harboring no rancor.
Former Wake schools principal and administrator Stephen Gainey has been hired as acting superintendent. That makes him Wake’s third superintendent in three years. And he’ll be helping craft Wake’s third student assignment plan in three years. That gives you an idea of the turmoil the system is facing.
Gainey vows to help the board regain its footing: “I want the Board of Education to be a successful group. We are going to continue to work to promote consensus and we are not going to give up on it. A whole bunch of children depend on that.”
When partisanship rears its ugly head, school boards across the state should remember and heed Gainey’s words.