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

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2010

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.

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