Come and Gone: The Story of a School Board Ethics Controversy

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Controversy came and went on the Wake County school board last week. Superintendent Tony Tata accused two board members of ethics violations and said they implicitly endorsed personal attacks against him. By the end of the week, Tata apologized for the accusations.

Photo courtesy of WCPSS

Superintendent Tony Tata

In an email, Tata questioned the ethics of school board Democrats Susan Evans and Christine Kushner. The email was sent the day after Great Schools in Wake, a liberal advocacy organization supported by both board members, released a statement critical of his work on the controlled-choice assignment plan.

After a response from Kushner and Evans, Tata ramped up his criticism at a board meeting Tuesday. He said both board members violated ethical standards by supporting the group and were under its “stranglehold,” the News & Observer reported.

Timeline of Tata Events

The week ended with Tata rescinding his assertion that either member had violated ethical standards and apologizing for suggesting otherwise.

It marked the first time that Tata has publicly and vocally taken sides in the politics of the school board since taking office in January 2011.

Tata charged in his initial email that Evans and Kushner’s association with the group was an obstruction to good governance and ultimately has a negative impact on students.

The GSIW press release that fueled Tata’s accusatory email quoted the group’s chair, Yevonne Brannon, as saying “Tata’s actions continue to erode the public’s trust.”

Brannon was referring to various components of the new controlled-choice assignment plan, such as cost and bussing. The group believes the plan is rushed and should be delayed. The press release was one several that have been critical of Tata’s decisions.

Tata fired off to Kushner and Evans the following day:

“Attacks on my character such as those yesterday, which each of you implicitly endorse through your association and support of GSIW, undermine our ability to move forward as an effective governance team … We have many difficult decisions ahead of us and our decision making process is ill-served by endorsement of knowing false statements by groups vying for air time.”

The press release does not overtly attack Tata’s character, but accuses him of sending up a “smokescreen” to mask hidden costs of the new assignment plan.

Tata accurately notes that, in its latest report, AdvancED credited him with calming the political waters of Wake County (it referred to him as a “stabilizing force”) rather than eroding the public’s trust.

Kushner and Evans wasted no time responding.

“I must assume you know your broadside attack on me and another board member is, and that you intended it to be, a public record,” wrote Evans. “I believe this raises a serious question in judgment.”

Kushner goes on to say it is not the first time she has been “broadsided” by Tata, only last time it was done in person.

“This is not an acceptable way to treat a board member,” she concludes.

Evans’ tone was equally perturbed.

The set of emails drew across-the-board coverage from major news outlets and Tata was met with a deluge of questions at last Tuesday’s board work session, where he escalated his claim and charged that Evans and Kushner made ethical violations and were under a “stranglehold” by GSIW, the N&O quoted him as saying.

The board code of ethics states that board members should “render all decisions based on the available facts and independent judgment and refuse to surrender that judgment to individuals or special interest groups.”

At the meeting Yevonne Brannon said “stranglehold” couldn’t be any further from the truth.

“What’s the proof of it?” she asked. “Great Schools in Wake came out saying we strongly support delaying the plan. They [the board members] didn’t delay the plan.”

In fact, it also came out last week that board member Jim Martin had floated a draft resolution to delay the plan via email with Kushner and Evans. But in the end, Martin and fellow new board members decided they wouldn’t overturn the decision to implement the plan on schedule.

This story was trumped in the media by Tata’s email and his further assertion that board members made ethical violations by supporting GSIW.

On Thursday, the NC NAACP sent an open letter to Tata asking him to reconsider his critical remarks.

By Friday, Tata released an apology that also bore the names of Chair Kevin Hill, school board attorney Anne Majestic, as well as Kushner and Evans.

“We all agreed that Ms. Evans and Ms. Kushner have not violated any ethical rules or principles in their work as board members. Mr. Tata has apologized to these board members for suggesting otherwise and has acknowledged that he should have handled his concerns in a different manner,” the statement read.

All in all, it was a week that caught more traction for the divisive politics of the school board than a single GSIW press release ever has.

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