When John Tedesco spoke at a recent Wake County school board meeting about his decision not to seek re-election, a school system staffer snickered, and muttered with no small hint of derision, “Mm-hmm.”
That verbal slip wasn’t accompanied by an eye roll, but that was probably only because he was on camera.
Meanwhile, on Tedesco’s public Facebook page, supporter Judy Hadley wrote enthusiastically after his announcement: “Thank you, John, for your dedicated service to Wake County schools and your dogged determination to get things right!”
Like him or not, it’s apparent that Tedesco, who announced in July that he will not be running for a second term in the District 2 seat, inspired strong feelings in people from all sides. And that was often done just by his presence on the board – which was passionate, but also prone to combativeness and overexposure.
During a recent interview at Aversboro Coffee in Garner, where Tedesco was greeted as a familiar face, he reflected upon his work, talked about what he would have done differently and what he considers the biggest accomplishment of his term.
In hindsight, Tedesco said, he realizes now that some of his actions could have used a softer approach.
In 2009, Tedesco was part of the Republican majority elected to the board that voted to do away with the decade-old income-based reassignment plan at its very first meeting. The move set off alarms within a number of communities, in particular the North Carolina NAACP.
“I had to learn to be more empathetic and understanding. We probably could’ve benefitted better in 2009 from doing it more slowly and deliberately,” Tedesco said.
“My formative years were in the ‘80s and ‘90s. My whole frame of reference was an integrated world,” he added. “One of the things I had to learn early on was some of the older people here did live it. Brown vs. Board of Education wasn’t just a page in the history book.”
The protests and the bickering on the school board also made Wake schools a subject of national criticism, including in a “The Colbert Report” segment and in a Washington Post story that both used this quote from Tedesco:
“If we had a school that was, like, 80 percent high-poverty, the public would see the challenges, the need to make it successful,” he said. “Right now, we have diluted the problem, so we can ignore it.”
During the interview in Garner, Tedesco seemed to know it will take awhile to live that down, though he still chafed at it and was eager to set the record straight. The Washington Post quote, he said, was taken out of context from a three-hour interview that touched on many aspects of the school system.
As for Colbert, he said, “Never pick your fights with people who buy ink by the barrel.”
He is proud of putting attention on at-risk kids, which included the “schools-to-prison pipeline,” in which low-income and minority kids are more often criminalized by zero tolerance policies than their peers. In particular, Tedesco said he was proud of the Economically Disadvantaged
Students Performance Task Force, a board committee he led that sought to focus attention on suspension rates and improve academic tracking policies – placement of kids into advanced classes – that Tedesco and others felt hindered at-risk kids more than helped them.
Tedesco pointed to lowered suspension rates and increased enrollment in advanced math classes as evidence that the task force’s work yielded results.
For instance, enrollment in Algebra I in middle school went up in Wake from 3,322 students in the 2009-10 school year to 6,482 students 2011-12, according to the task force’s documents. Suspensions have been declining. In the 2009-10 school year, there were 20,244 suspensions. In the 2010-11 school year, there were 17,737 suspensions.
Shila Nordone, an N.C. State University assistant professor who worked with Tedesco on the task force, defended him.
“John should be viewed as an education reformer, not as a Republican who is out to destroy public education,” Nordone wrote in an e-mail exchange. “The belief is that [economically disadvantaged] kids enter school so far behind that they can’t catch up. The reality is that through our tracking policies we actually create a system where children are not given the chance to grow to their maximum potential.”
“A lot of people who participated in the process saw we had more in common than not,” Tedesco said.
Unfortunately, participation was missing from some key figures, he said, including The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP.
“Rev. Barber wasn’t coming to the ED task force meetings,” Tedesco said. “He didn’t stay in the process.”
On that issue and others, Tedesco returned again and again during his interview to the problem of a huge school system overseeing the problems of individual communities as disparate as Cary, Garner and downtown Raleigh — to the problems of individual students.
“My concern was never how good we looked on paper. My concern was how good our kids were doing,” he said.
This concern seems to have been an outgrowth of Tedesco’s family history. The oldest of six children, Tedesco, 38, cared for his siblings while growing up in the Pittsburgh area in low-income neighborhoods. His mother died nine years ago. His father was a steel mill worker who retired early and moved down to North Carolina.
Tedesco and other members of the family followed his father to North Carolina. Tedesco settled in Garner with his wife, Jennifer, their son and his little sister, who lived with them and is now headed off to college.
After his term ends, Tedesco plans to spend time with his family. He’ll work with his brother, Mike, in the Cary office of Appraisal Nation, a national real estate appraisal company. Tedesco said he spent about $40,000 of his savings during his school board term, and gained about 40 pounds. The difference shows in his photos – an ID tag for Wake schools taken years ago shows a younger, leaner Tedesco, with more hair.
He said he and his family need time to refresh and re-focus.
“If I’m not good to my own family, then how can I help other people’s?” he said. “And who knows? I might run again in 2016.”
Some might not be so eager to see his return.
“When does he plan on moving out of North Carolina and does he need help packing???” one @JohnPComer, a Raleigh activist, wrote on Twitter recently.
To which Tedesco replied, as he has to others goading him to move away: “No need to worry about me packing up. I plan on staying for life to raise my family, build my business and support my community.”
“I look at the labels in my life. People growing up said I wasn’t going to be anything,” Tedesco said. “People called me a street rat. I’ve seen hundreds of labels. I’ve been called racist. I’ve been called a hero. Rich. Segregationist. Common man. Hero.”
“I want that every child is positioned and supported to reach their full potential,” he said.