Tony Tata has been the Superintendent of Wake County Schools for 37 days. In that time, he has visited nearly 40 schools and met with countless groups. The past week was particularly busy for Tata. He met with some of the people who have been the most highly critical of the School Board majority that hired him - including NAACP President William Barber. Tata’s latest event took place at Martin Street Baptist Church, in front of an audience predisposed to dislike him.
Nearly two dozen people had already asked questions - some tough, some rambling - over the course of an hour when a 12-year old boy stepped to the microphone. His forehead was sweaty and he shuffled his feet, but when he finally spoke, his voice was clear.
"Good evening, My name is Darius Kearny and I was going to ask what’s the point of moving students from a different district school which is not in your neighborhood back to the neighborhood in which they can not work better in?"
Darius is just one of the thousands of students in Southeast Raleigh assigned to schools outside of his neighborhood, but he likes the chance he’s gotten at his school north of the beltline.
Last year, the School Board voted to dismantle the diversity policy that Darius says works well for him. A few months ago, they hired Tony Tata as Superintendent. Not surprisingly, the crowd here believes Tata is an extension of the Board - and an enemy to diversity.
"It sort of perplexes me, but I understand the question, when I get asked about am I going to protect the children. Am I going to value diversity. Of course. Of course I am."
Most of the parents and community members came to this forum with their minds already made up about Tata. Conservative former general, commentator on Fox News. But he’s also the son of two teachers, a middle child, and a former wrestler at West Point.
He’ll need all of those experiences in guiding a district so divided and tense that a School Board meeting erupted in violence just seven months ago.
Seth Keel was one of the students led away from that meeting in handcuffs. He’s a junior at Middle Creek High School in Cary. And he was one of the organizers of the forum at Martin Street Baptist. He says Tata’s willingness to meet with everyone is a good first step.
"Seth Keel: It’s very good to see him reaching out to the community, but I think it’s more than that, so he needs to deliver on his promises and the promises of keeping diversity in schools while still keeping high student achievement."
Tata took tough questions for two hours, and seemed ready to stay as long as anyone wanted to air a grievance or offer an opinion.
He came off as a patient listener. And while he may not have changed anyone’s mind about the School Board, many came away with the sense that hating Tata was premature.
Abe Jones is a state superior court judge.
"I want to thank you for coming, I respect the fact that you’ve come and I’m willing to give you a chance, because I think we all should."
That chance is all Tata says he is asking for - and he seemed pleased afterward.
"I think I’ve been welcomed by this community with open arms, no matter what corner of it I go to. I absolutely feel like I should be evaluated on what I do, not what I say."
Tata will now transition from saying to doing. He has formed a task force to try to design a new student assignment policy. He vows to embrace the effort put forth in the plan created by education consultant Michael Alves that does not concentrate too many low-performing students in one school.
When Tata’s plan is released in late spring, he says it will not divide the community, but bring it closer together. And he vows to come back to places like Martin Street Baptist Church and hear what everyone thinks of him then.