Wake County school board member John Tedesco announced Thursday that he is going to run against Democratic incumbent June Atkinson.
Tedesco is in his first term as member of the school board. If he wins the run for State Superintendent, his seat will have nearly a year left off on it and will have to be filled by appointment. If he loses, he’ll keep his seat on the Board of Education. Two of his fellow Republican board members, Debra Goldman and Chris Malone, have also expressed interest in running for higher office in 2012.
Record reporter Will Huntsberry talks to Tedesco about his decision to run as well as his controversial history on the school board.
Transcript of Conversation with John Tedesco
Record: Mr. Tedesco. Today has been a big day of political decisions. The governor decided not to run. Representative Brad Miller decided not to run. You, yourself have decided to run for State Superintendent against June Atkinson. Tell me a little bit about that.
JT: Quite frankly part of my decision making process is that I was vey disappointed in the previous administration—Governor Easley and now Gov. Perdue. June Atkinson is now seeking a third term … And the results in education we’ve had in this state. Ms. Atkinson announced that she was running last week and when she did she said, “we’re in the third quarter and we’re winning, so why would we quit now.” And quite frankly I just have very different views on that. I don’t think a state where 30 percent of our kids are not graduating every year, where 50 percent of our minority kids are not reading on grade level, where we rank 4th in the nation in suspensions with a serious school to prison pipeline. I don’t consider that winning. I think we have some serious challenges.
Quite frankly over the past several years, not just the past year as some of the partisans would try to make it seem with a change in the general assembly, but over the past several years Gov. Perdue with a Democratic assembly at her side watched thousands of teachers in North Carolina los their jobs. And there was nobody there to champion the reforms we needed that would’ve been able to protect teachers, like we did in Wake County. We streamlined operations. We reduced the bureaucracy. We cut ineffective programs. We kept our dollars in the face of limited resources and critical times aimed at the classroom. We protected every teacher. We have 18,000 employees here in Wake County. We protected every teacher. We put $32 million more into instructional services at the same time we doubled our fund balance … That took a lot of hard work and looking at things a little differently. We haven’t had that kind of champion for our kids and I’m willing to stand up and be that voice even if it means rolling up my sleeves and putting up a fight.
Record: We’ve seen the school board in the media be portrayed as very politicized and I think that’s accurate to some extent. We had these recent school board elections and people had to roll up their sleeves in that battle. There was a lot of mud being thrown either way, associating Republicans with the Tea Party, stuff like that. How do you see that playing out on a statewide level? Do you think that’s going to be a problem?
JT: No. What I’ve learned over the past several years is that there are some who love me and some who don’t. But the ones who don’t – I’ve earned their respect, because I stand by the courage of my convictions. I am a man who does what I say. I put it out there, who I am. I roll up my sleeves. I do the hard work for what I believe in. Quite frankly, I think across North Carolina, they’re looking for that type of leadership. I don’t think what you saw on our board or how it was portrayed in political actions is reflective of the type of leadership we’ve actually brought to the table or that I’ve been able to deliver. I’ve been a champion. You can see in the News & Observer they’ve called me a tireless voice for underprivileged children. Whether it was fighting for discipline policy reforms, making our schools safer, reducing our drop-our rates, impacting our school-to-prison pipeline, I’ve been that voice at the table. I think citizens across North Carolina are going to like to have somebody at the table talking those issues. I’ve been a champion for children to have real equal opportunities in our schools. I think we’ve seen that. When I talk about minority kids not getting placement in some of our advanced tracks, fought for math curriculum alignment opportunities that put thousands more minority children into advanced tracks and gave them real opportunities, where I might add they succeeded! I can’t imagine that those types of things are things that citizens across North Carolina are going to see as partisan on one side or the other. I think they are things that people are going to see and say “wow, we need someone to do that for us from the mountains to the coast, from the urban centers to the rural pockets, whose going to fight for all of our children.”
Record: You mentioned a lot of core issues there that I think many North Carolinians believe in but at the same time I know you do often distance yourself from your Democrat counterparts and how you operate and do things. Do you think the label for conservative would be right in your case?
JT: I certainly feel that I’m a conservative in my views on a lot of issues- in how we manage finances. I think that has proven to be productive. It has saved thousands of teachers their jobs. We streamlined bureaucracy. I think we differ because a lot of my Democratic colleagues on the board in the past, have supported, sort of, what I call “business as usual.” They’ve been status quo educ-rats, bureaucrats, who’ve been part of the system for 30 years and helped create the problems but are not positioned to help create the solutions. While I respect some of those colleagues, I’ve said that boldly, publicly and I’m not shying away from it now. Quite frankly, I think when you’re in bed with the problem for 30 years of your career, it’s difficult to see things differently. I have no problem calling out what I see as challenges to the education system.
I’m conservative when it comes to the position of family values in North Carolina and education. I believe in parental choice, which is why we’ve launched the largest parental choice assignment plan in the nation now. I think that’s a positive impact. I think, it helps apply free market priniciples to schools that bring about innovation and accountability. Ultimately, that competition among our schools will help create better schools. I think those are conservative values. But I think they are conservative values that are producing positive results.
Record: It was neck and neck in these last [school board] elections, but we do now have a Democratic-lead school board.
JT: Three hundred sixty votes in Mr. Margiotta’s district and nothing would’ve changed and half a million dollars in a school board race.
Record: How do you think your Democratic colleagues are doing leading the school board? I know [their leadership] is just getting started, but at the same time a lot has gone on already.
JT: I think one of the things we’ve been able to do in a short amount of time—and I think some of that is very critically aligned with some of the work that Superintendent Tata is doing- but one the things we’ve been able to do is work together on the issues that we’ve been working on. I said very clearly to our new chairman Mr. Hill, I said very clearly, “If we’re going to work to move forward, I’m going to help you. I’m going to be part of this team. If you’re going to work to rehash all the old issues, you’re going to go and look at the fact that we hired a general for superintendent and trying an oust the guy, I’m going to fight you every step of the way. If you’re going to go and take away our new assignment plan that gives parents stability and choice, then I’m going to fight you every step of the way.”
What you’ve seen – just in the first couple months – is that they’ve delivered on keeping true to the promises that we’ve already delivered on. The assignment plan hasn’t changed yet. We’re still delivering that. The superintendent is still in charge. We haven’t gotten rid of him like the former superintendent. In fact, you’ve even seen recently with the former protestors, we’re still moving forward with the way the former board decided it. The current board is not deciding it in the same like manner.
Record: Was it surprising to you at all – I think it was to some onlookers – that the Democrats decided not to change anything [about the assignment plan] and they decided to not to have mediation for those protestors [you mentioned]?
JT: I think when the heat of politics came out of the debate, when half a million dollar and thousands of political troops, using Wake County for a political foothold in the upcoming 2012 elections, was gone, people actually looked at the issues. They said, “you know what, whether you like them or not, I think these guys were right.”
Our former assignment model wasn’t providing the stability families needed. It wasn’t providing the flexibility families needed, like when this county had things like mandatory year round and constant reassignment. This [new assignment plan] is a way to move forward. Are there concerns with any new plan? That you would have to watch and monitor and be willing to modify? Yes. We’re all open to that. I think that’s what they’re saying is, “Hey, all the politics are out of the air now.” You have to go from campaigning to governing. When you go to governing and you look at the solutions we’ve delivered on—they’re the right solutions.
Record: I think you could almost describe the plan accurately as somewhat of a compromise plan from the get-go because it wasn’t purely neighborhood schools. Would you say that is true? And do you feel like you did your part for all those people who elected you for neighborhood schools?
JT: Certainly. And I would say that because I would say that I introduced that plan. As chairman of the student assignment committee, that we had as a board, I brought Dr. Michael Alves into that board room. I went and met with him with the Raleigh city chamber and we ended up getting the Raleigh Chamber to support and fund some of that early planning. And the early plan we proposed, while it was zone based- basically it just drew the lines around the same choices we have now, we have feeder patterns, which if you look at them it’s almost the same as the zone based plan- but while it was zone-based it was clustering schools together in a choice, so it wasn’t a tight, strict little neighborhood, because you can’t do a strict, little neighborhood plan in a county that’s growing. So, we had to have some flexibility. But we also had to have some common sense. There’s no reason to bus a kid an hour each-way. Maybe he can’t go to his closest school, if it’s packed. But, the one that’s .3 miles past that should be a viable option. I think delivering on that to families has made them happy. I think, ultimately, stability as well as choice will provide families what they need in Wake County.
Record: Thanks very much for talking to us today, Mr. Tedesco.