Tony Tata is standing before a map of North Carolina the size of a small child, poring over the details of the state’s transportation structure. Emphasizing the chain of command, Tata, the state’s transportation secretary, points out each of North Carolina’s 14 divisions, which in turn are home to three districts apiece with their own headquarters marked by a green dot. This rigid adherence to order came in handy just days before, when a winter storm brought air traffic to a halt and sent drivers barreling out of control on icy roadways. “It has a very military feel to it,” he says, “in that you have people who sort of own terrain, then here at each of these green dots is where the resources are—vehicles, plows, spreaders.”
The reason it sounds like a military operation is because that’s Tata’s background. He spent 28 years in the U.S. Army, finishing his last combat tour in Afghanistan in 2007 as the deputy commanding general of U.S. forces. He didn’t have a day of experience in transportation when North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory picked him to be the state’s transportation chief in 2013. For that matter, he didn’t have much experience in education when he was picked as superintendent of schools in Wake County, N.C., in 2011. Tony Tata is a man who gets top jobs even when he lacks the credentials the jobs are supposed to require. He is a one-man test case for the argument that the ability to command is more important than substantive knowledge when it comes to high-level jobs in state and local government.
The governor who appointed Tata to his present job is convinced his unorthodox choice made sense. “The major skill you need for the Department of Transportation is leadership and an understanding of complex organizations,” McCrory says. “The second skill is understanding infrastructure and logistics. That’s what a DOT job is.”
Inexperienced as he was, the 54-year-old Tata got off to a fast start in his transportation post last year. He immediately went to work on the governor’s top transportation priority: rewriting the funding formula to direct more money to broader state and regional projects that will spur economic growth and ease urban congestion. That meant pushing meaty legislation through the state General Assembly and scrapping a decades-old system that distributed money to counties evenly without regard to need or impact. For cities like Charlotte, that was an easy sell; for rural places like Iredell or Gaston counties, it was harder to see the upside. But the bill passed with very little opposition, marking a strong first achievement for an appointee whose experience with infrastructure stopped at the battlefield.
One of Tata's first tasks as transportation secretary was scrapping a decades-old system that distributed money to counties without regard to need or impact. (David Kidd/Governing)
Tata was a few months out of the Army, writing military novels in his spare time, when a chance acquaintance led him into civilian government. He had enrolled in a 10-week course for retiring officers, and at a dinner event, he met a recruiter for the Broad Superintendents Academy, an executive development program launched in 2002 by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad. To Broad, the problem with education is leadership, and shaking up struggling schools requires new thinking at the top. The son of two educators, Tata accepted an offer to attend. The Broad Academy likes making unusual career connections. Tata’s own class of 2009 included four military leaders and two private-sector executives. To date, about 13 percent of the academy’s graduates have come from the military.
The perception that the Broad Academy brings in outsiders to push through controversial changes has earned it a vocal contingent of critics, who fear efforts toward greater school choice and accountability through student testing are smokescreens for privatization. But the academy has had a measurable impact: 21 of the nation’s 75 largest school districts currently have superintendents or high-ranking district executives who have gone through the Broad Academy, according to Education Week.
Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor, is perhaps the most identifiable national figure linked to Broad’s brand of school reform. When Tata was still at Broad in 2009, Rhee gave him a job in D.C. as chief of operations. She wasn’t looking for standard credentials. Rather, she wanted to sharpen the other side of education—the myriad tasks around running schools, from procuring resources to supplying lunches and running facilities. “His leadership experience in a government agency—especially one as large, complex and demanding as the U.S. military—made him uniquely qualified,” Rhee says.
As chief of operations, Tata received praise for a range of improvements, along with a flattering profile in The Washington Post. He got federal approval for more schools to serve free lunch to all students, instituted a breakfast program, extended dinner service to many low-income students and moved cafeterias away from prepackaged, heavily processed foods. He overhauled D.C. schools’ inefficient warehouse operation, bringing in more private contractors. He went into schools before the academic year started, armed with a spreadsheet to make note of resource needs. He followed those visits with weekly conference calls open to all principals and business managers. “Before he arrived, I would call procurement the black hole,” says Lynn Main, a D.C. school principal.
Tata had been working for Rhee for about a year when Wake County, N.C., which includes the city of Raleigh, came after him through a headhunter. Despite his thin résumé—and no background at all in running a school system on his own—he soon became the top choice of a school board that wanted a nontraditional superintendent. For the most vocal members of a narrow Republican majority, “nontraditional” meant a candidate who hadn’t followed the typical educational career arc, from teacher to school leader to top-level district executive. They went as far as to relax the qualifications for the job, and Tata got it.
Nontraditional choices for superintendent are far from rare in American education these days. They began to attract attention in the mid-1990s, when John Stanford, a retired U.S. Army major general, took over Seattle schools and presided over three years of rising student scores. Since then, nontraditional candidates have accounted for an estimated 10 to 20 percent of superintendent posts in large cities. The nontraditional option is an easier sell in larger school districts, which often face more intractable problems and more intense demands for swift change. When he took over in Raleigh, Tata had to put some ideology behind him. Previously he had been a contributor to the conservative blog Breitbart.com, and was publicly quoted claiming that Sarah Palin would be a better commander-in-chief than Barack Obama. But Tata began avoiding the spotlight when he started work as superintendent in Wake County in January of 2011. “I felt like I had to choose,” he says. “I didn’t want to be seen as someone who, by day, is working in the school system and by night is giving my opinion for or against this president, who some kids may look up to.”
Ideology aside, Tata was enmeshed in controversy in Raleigh from the moment he arrived there. He had been selected as superintendent by a newly elected conservative school board, which asked him to soften the previous policy of promoting diversity and racial balance as a top priority. Tata came up with a school assignment plan that emphasized neighborhood schools, and it won board approval on a 6-2 vote.
Before the plan could take effect, though, Democrats regained a narrow majority on the school board. They saw their election as a strong message in favor of Raleigh’s past policies, and against what Tata and the previous board were trying to do. “That [diversity plan] was part of our history,” says Christine Kushner, who’s now the board’s chairwoman. She says the previous board “sought to undo a lot of that culture and history.”
In summer 2012 the new Democratic majority voted to restore diversity as a factor in school assignment, and in September, after a year and a half, Tata was dismissed without cause. Democrats were at first tight-lipped on the reasons for Tata’s ouster, but they later blamed a leadership style that did not “leave room for collaborative decision-making and input.”
Several local opinion polls showed voters widely disapproved of Tata’s firing. The Raleigh News and Observer, which North Carolina conservatives routinely accuse of liberal bias, said the move smacked of partisan politics and defended Tata’s performance. At the time he left, poor students were making sizable gains on standardized tests and the number of schools performing below proficiency continued to fall. Tata’s detractors say he wasn’t in the job long enough to take credit for any of those gains, but Tata nevertheless credits decisions such as redirecting more Title I money directly to the classroom and ensuring no budget cuts reached the classroom level. “I was hired by the Republican board, and there was some predisposition to wanting a traditional educator from those educators who came in, despite the fact that the district was performing,” Tata says.
The dust had barely settled when McCrory, the newly elected Repubican governor, called Tata with an offer to join his cabinet. Moving him to transportation wasn’t the original idea; McCrory had thought of Tata as a possible education adviser or public safety director. But he settled on Tata as the right man to push through an overhaul of the state’s transportation funding formula. Democrats complained that it was a political choice dictated by Art Pope, a major contributor to both McCrory and the Republican school board in Raleigh. McCrory insisted on his choice, and Tata immediately went to work on the transportation bill.
The old transportation formula, passed in 1989, divided funding evenly among the state’s 14 divisions, creating—in the minds of many mayors and a host of critics from both parties—an “equity formula” in name only. “There was no real incentive to think across division boundaries or even more regionally or statewide,” Tata says. His directive was to design a formula that would create more high-impact projects to generate jobs and economic growth. The result was a 30-page bill that pooled money into statewide, regional and local projects, scoring submissions on key measures such as traffic congestion relief, travel time, job creation and the opportunity to connect multiple modes of transportation. In place of a more-or-less evenly divided pool of $6.4 billion over the next decade, 40 percent of funding will go toward statewide projects, 30 percent to regional projects and 30 percent to the local level.
Republicans and Democrats alike saw the need for changes, but it was clear that some—particularly rural lawmakers—would protest against the loss of guaranteed support for secondary roads, says Dan Blue, a Democrat. Blue co-sponsored the last funding overhaul in 1989 and, along with most Democrats, ultimately voted for the bill. Tata’s office was receptive to certain changes, which adjusted the level of funding for each tier and added support for light-rail projects. That sensitivity to the concerns of individual legislators is not always the case with the Department of Transportation, Blue says. “I think Secretary Tata did a good job of shepherding it through, allaying some of the fears of some of the rural legislators, because they did give up a substantial amount.”
To help explain and sell the overhaul, Tata enlisted staff members as legislative liaisons, paid frequent visits to legislative committee hearings and made PowerPoint presentations to individual lawmakers. “We had a full-court press on making sure people understood,” he says. But as projects start to filter in and compete for money under the new formula, the challenge for McCrory’s administration will shift to securing more transportation funding. Transportation tax revenue is expected to fall by $1.7 billion over the next decade while population continues to grow.
For now, though, Tata’s primary focus is to score new projects, reaching out to local leaders across the state for feedback and continuing to explain the new plan, before it takes effect in July 2015. It’s a job some local media critics have suggested Tata might lack the experience to handle. But many state legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, don’t see it that way.
“In a senior leadership position such as secretary of transportation, the ability to understand the role at a strategic level and assess and use people in subject-matter expertise is more important,” says Rep. Bill Brawley, a Republican who heads the House Transportation Committee. “We don’t really need a secretary to design and build roads. We need a secretary to recognize people who are very good at building and designing roads and mobilize the resources to make it happen.”