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Retired Army officer's new mission: D.C. public schools

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2010; B01

Anthony J. Tata was an Army brigadier general in northeast Afghanistan's Kunar Province in April 2006 when a Taliban rocket slammed into a primary school in Asadabad, killing seven children and wounding 34.

The vicious attack and others like it by the Taliban left him with a thought: "It struck me at the time that if the enemy of my enemy is education, then perhaps that's a second act for me."

Three years later, Tata began his second act by accepting Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's offer to become chief operating officer for D.C. public schools, a newly created post that places him in charge of purchasing, food service, technology and other support areas.

After a 28-year career that took him to Kosovo, Macedonia, Panama, the Philippines and the international agency charged with thwarting improvised explosive devices, Tata's mission is to help bring the District's notorious school bureaucracy to heel.

Tata has made inroads in an organization with a history of wasteful spending, late textbook deliveries and indifferent customer service. He helped win certification for 77 D.C. public schools to serve free lunch to all children, saving on administrative costs and reducing the stigma for those who qualify for free and reduced-price meals. He has overhauled the school system's warehouse operation, which was making signs and staining furniture before he contracted out the work, cutting full-time staff from 36 to eight.

He hired staff to work with school business managers on better purchasing practices. Where the central warehouse once ordered paper for the entire system and then trucked it to individual schools, managers now use debit cards to order directly.

"Seems like a no-brainer, but that's not the way we were doing it," said Tata, 50, who graduated from West Point in 1981.

Tata is a distinctive, alpha-male presence at a school headquarters filled with 20- and 30-somethings transfixed by their BlackBerry devices -- and where five of Rhee's top aides, including her chief of staff, are women. No one else is likely to talk about how to take an issue and "shoot it between the eyes."

Tata also writes Tom Clancy-style military thrillers. "Rogue Threat" and "Sudden Threat" are the first in a projected series about the exploits of CIA paramilitary operative Matt Garrett. Royalties go to the USO.

Tata dedicated "Sudden Threat" to three officers with whom he had served. Two were killed in Iraq, one in Afghanistan.

"I've buried so many friends," he said in his office this month. "There's a part of it that will never leave you."

Shortly before coming to D.C. schools, Tata popped up on Fox News to promote his books and comment on military affairs. More recently, he has blogged on national politics.

In December, he wrote a glowing review of Sarah Palin's book, "Going Rogue," on the "Big Hollywood" site operated by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart. He said that Palin "is far more qualified to be president of the United States than the current occupant of the White House" and that the former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate is "precisely the kind of leader America needs."

Tata decried what he called "the mainstream media assault upon this patriot" and also praised Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as another example of a public figure whose image the media have distorted. It's not the usual extracurricular commentary from a local public school official, but neither Tata nor Rhee see it as an issue. "I've spent a career defending everybody's right to free speech, so I figured I'd take advantage of it a little bit," Tata said.

In an e-mail, Rhee responded: "Tata does his job very well. He doesn't mention DCPS in any of these things, nor does he allow his political views to impact his work with us. He's a professional."

The last big-time military man to take on D.C. schools didn't fare well. In 1996, the D.C. financial control board named retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton as superintendent. He quit in frustration 17 months later. But Tata is not running the system, and he answers only to Rhee. The governance structure has allowed him to make a difference quickly. And Tata, whose mother served on the Virginia Beach school board and has a sister who teaches, is energized by his new task.

"The mission is so pure, it's so right, and the people are great. That's right in my wheelhouse," he said. Those farther down the chain of command say that there is a new responsiveness to basic school needs.

"Things are so different, it's wonderful," said Brent Elementary principal Cheryl Wilhoyte, whose fifth-graders last year were so unhappy with cold chicken nuggets and other cafeteria food that they asked for a meeting with the District's food-service contractor, Chartwells-Thompson. Tata has prodded Chartwells into making improvements, including converting from prepackaged meals to "fresh-cooked" at most elementary schools, but he is considering a formal search for a new food-service contractor.

Tata is anchored by his weekly "sync meetings," a chance for business managers in the system's 125 schools to communicate with central office staff. At 1 p.m. every Wednesday, he steps to a speakerphone in front of a packed room.

Tata and other officials take questions on dry-as-sawdust but critical matters, most of them about money. Who pays for gasoline for the snowblowers? Where do you send Form 76-1, which is used to transfer money between funds? And at exactly 2 p.m., it's over. No matter what.

Tata says it's not unlike the meetings he held in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division, where he was deputy commanding general for support, charged with supplying and sustaining troops across a vast, harsh terrain.

"He was all about the guys on the ground and giving them what they needed," said Lt. Jared Kwiatkowski, Tata's driver in Afghanistan.

Education wasn't Tata's first choice for a second act. Even as his military career took off, he longed to be a published author and chipped away at it during weekends and time off. In 2008, when he negotiated a contract with Variance, a publishing house that specializes in thriller and action-adventure genres, he put in his retirement papers.

But with a daughter headed to medical school, Tata realized that writing wouldn't pay all the bills. At a conference for outgoing general officers, he heard a presentation from the Broad Superintendents Academy, founded by Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad to recruit executive talent for urban school districts. He hadn't forgotten the smoking ruins of the school in Asadabad, so he applied and was accepted. He said he would eventually like to run his own school district.

His father, Virginia Del. Robert Tata (R-Virginia Beach), said he is proud of his son's career change but knows how rough D.C. politics can be.

"That's a pretty volatile situation to be in," he said. "I told him not to buy a house up there."

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