North Carolina Campaign 2012: Staying after class with Mr. Tedesco



John Tedesco looks tired. 

And he SHOULD.  He’s running an extremely low-budget campaign for state superintendent of public instruction.  He has no entourage of aides.  Some candidates have customized buses for touring the state.  Tedesco has himself, his smart phone, and his personal SUV, loaded to the gills with campaign signs and literature.  Tedesco and THAT car have driven over 60,000 miles from Murphy to Manteo during the 2012 campaign season.

Tedesco has scheduled at least four town hall meetings per day — each in a different county.  While many candidates hold meet-and-greets in swanky hotel ballrooms, Tedesco holds court at dutch-treat events in small town cafés.   Today, I sat down with him after he addressed about 40 Moore County residents at Mac’s Breakfast Anytime in downtown Southern Pines.

Mac’s is quite an appropriate venue for an event for an upstart candidate like Tedesco.  Mac’s owner Dave Whitney bought the small diner and aggressively expanded it to several locations.  He went head-to-head against Shoney’s in the battle for the breakfast crowd — and WON.  Shoney’s packed up and left town.  Whitney bought the empty Shoney’s building and turned it into his chain’s newest location.   He took on a big dog — and WON.  In this campaign, Tedesco is fulfilling Whitney’s role.  His Shoney’s is personified by incumbent DPI secretary June Atkinson and the Raleigh establishment.

“My opponent is a nice lady.  I can’t say much bad about her personally,” Tedesco says. “Public education in this state is not adequately serving students and parents.  The system is broken, and needs to be fixed.  My opponent has been in office for eight years now.  She’s been working in that DPI building in Raleigh since 1976.  She’s not exactly an agent of change.  She’s done a great job of preserving the status quo. Unfortunately, the status quo is not getting the job done. ”

The Republican Wake County school board member has been a passionate advocate for reforming the public school bureaucracy.  His efforts have earned him the emnity of WRAL, The N&O and the “education establishment.”   Tedesco was instrumental in enacting the school choice plan in Wake County (that has so angered local leftists) and in hiring superintendent Tony Tata  (who was just fired by school board leftists in a party line vote).

It’s apparent Tedesco’s enemies have helped him earn a lot of new friends and supporters outside the Raleigh beltline.  Several times during our interview, we are interrupted by diners who recognize Tedesco from his appearances on WRAL.  A number of these diners wish Tedesco luck and ask him to pose with them for photos.

“We need to move away from this one-size-fits-all mentality in our public school system,” says Tedesco. “What works in Murphy may not be the best thing for kids in Manteo.”

Tedesco says he’d like to move some decision-making processes out of DPI HQ in Raleigh and into local school administration offices.  He cited school start and stop dates as an example.   Tedesco points to coastal counties, as an example, where many businesses depend on part-time teenage workers to help serve the crowds of tourists who descend on those locales each spring and summer.

Tedesco said he’d like to address funding formulas that frequently end up bedeviling local school systems.  The DPI bureaucracy sets standards for funding by comparing various county school systems.  Wake County is the largest system in the state, and the 16th largest in the country.  The system has more than 150,000 kids in 169 schools spread out over 850 square miles.  The second largest system is Mecklenburg, which covers 550 square miles.  The third largest is Guilford, which is half the size of Wake’s system. Tedesco says the state views all three systems as equivalents to be judged under the same standards.

  The candidate cited the example of busing as one area where the one-size-fits-all view in Raleigh wreaks havoc.

” A system will be told to adhere to efficiency standards set by Raleigh, or risk losing millions in funding,” Tedesco says. “In the case of busing, you get forced to take some buses off the road and put more kids on fewer buses with more stops.  That results in kids being on buses for one or two hours or more, and parents getting upset. ”

Tedesco says he’d like to explore alternate pathways to entering the teaching field.

“I think it’s great if an experienced business leader wants to take time to teach our children,” says Tedesco. “A veteran furniture maker would be a great candidate to teach wood shop.  I think it’s a shame to disqualify people like this due to a bunch of regulations and red tape.”

The candidate said he’d like to introduce some of the innovation he and his board have introduced in Wake County onto the state level.   Wake County has purchased an old Coca-Cola plant which will be upfit to host a technology training center for local students.  The county school system has also set up a satellite campus at WakeMed, where students can get medical technology training — which can be applied to post-graduate employment opportunities —  in addition to their standard curriculum.

Tedesco said he’d like to conduct a thorough internal audit of DPI and the more than 800 positions within the agency.

“It would be great to identify some savings, and some potential efficiencies, and act on them,” he says. ” We could take those saved funds and put them into the classrooms, where they can do the most good.”

Tedesco says it will be key to work with the General Assembly to implement real change in North Carolina public education.

“No one is denying that there will be a Republican majority in the General Assembly after November,” he say. “I stand a much better chance of working with the leadership there to get important legislation passed than my opponent does. Instead of turning to constructive engagement, my opponent has spent the last two years doing a lot of whining about budget cuts and Republicans hurting children.  The legislative leadership basically sat her in the corner and ignored her.  She’s apparently lost the respect of her party.  Democrats ran people against her in primaries.  Governor Perdue even tried to sit my opponent in the corner with her appointment of Bill Harrison. ”

The DPI secretary sits on the highly-important Council of State with the governor, lieutenant governor, and other elected heads of state agencies.

“The Democrats are bragging about how the Council of State will be their firewall against a Republican governor and legislature,” Tedesco says. “It’s important — in order to enact real change in Raleigh — to install a solid majority of like-minded, conservative, free-market minded individuals on the council.

Laws get passed in the general assembly, but the real decisions about the day-to-day operations of state government happen in the council of state.  That group makes decisions on state contracts.  It also votes on whether to increase or decrease the debt ceiling.  It votes on death penalty procedures.  The council has a Democrat majority now.  If that majority holds after November, they can cause a lot of problems for Governor McCrory and his agenda.”