Rhee hire to exit D.C. schools; COO Tata will run Wake County, N.C., system

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2010; 9:28 PM

Despite assurances from former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee that the senior management team she assembled during her 31/2-year tenure would remain intact until at least the end of the school year, the system's chief operating officer will leave next month.

Anthony J. Tata, who oversees food services, purchasing, technology and logistical tasks such as textbook delivery, will depart at the end of next month to become superintendent of the Wake County, N.C., school system, which includes the state capital, Raleigh. He joins several other key school officials just below the senior level who have left in recent weeks, including the chief of teacher professional development and the director of the office in charge of secondary school improvement.

When Rhee resigned in October, she said that she was confident her agenda would continue to move forward based on Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray's (D) selection of deputy Kaya Henderson as interim chancellor and a commitment from her senior staff to remain in place until June.

"Because Deputy Chancellor Henderson is the one who will be taking the reins and because the entire management team will stay in place, this will be an absolutely seamless transition," Rhee said at an Oct. 13 news conference. Gray added at the same event that he'd asked Henderson to ensure that deputies overseeing areas such as academics, special education, data and community engagement stay on.

"I believe that in keeping the senior team, we can provide the stability and continuity that our children need and deserve at this critical time," Gray said.

Rhee's spokesman did not return an e-mail message Monday. Tata, who was traveling Monday, said in an e-mail that when Rhee approached him about staying, he was already interviewing for the Wake County post. He said he told Rhee that if he did not receive the offer, he would stay until June "if not longer."

"It is my understanding that Chancellor Rhee made Chairman Gray aware of this possibility," Tata wrote. "Likewise I kept interim Chancellor Henderson aware of ongoing interviews and discussions with the Wake County search team as they occurred."

The departure of Tata, 51, a brigadier general and deputy commander of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan before his military retirement and recruitment by Rhee in mid-2009, is significant. His portfolio included areas that have long been trouble spots in the school system, such as late-arriving textbooks and long waits for other basic supplies. Some principals have said school operations improved after his arrival.

Tata devoted considerable energy to upgrading the quality of school food, including a pilot program to introduce cooked-from-scratch meals with regional produce and more healthful ingredients. The District also began serving an early dinner to more than 10,000 students on his watch.

Henderson said Monday that his departure was "an unexpected opportunity to advance his career to a superintendency." She called it "a great testament to the talent we've amassed."

Other key officials who arrived during Rhee's tenure have also departed in recent weeks. They include Cheryl Krehbiel, director of professional development for teachers - an area that Rhee and Henderson regard as critical to school improvement - who left in early November. Krehbiel made ripples when she told a PBS interviewer in 2008 that half of the city's schoolteachers "don't have the right mind-set" to perform effectively and that possibly more "don't have the content knowledge to do the job."

Marrianne McMullen, chief of staff to family and public engagement head Peggy O'Brien, resigned shortly before Thanksgiving. Margaret Angell, director of the office of school transformation, charged with rethinking and redesigning middle and high school programs, left this month. Krehbiel and Angell did not respond to requests for comment. McMullen declined to comment.

Officials said privacy laws barred them from discussing the specific circumstances of each departure and that in a central office operation of more than 500 employees, turnover is inevitable.

However, Lisa Ruda, Henderson's chief of staff, said in a Dec. 1 e-mail: "Over the past month we have reviewed and assessed what we've been doing, what works, what can and should be improved, what more we should do, and what we should be doing differently. To that end we have begun a process of reorganizing our office and staff to support our work."

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