10/31/12 — Tedesco hopes different experiences will carry him to schools superintendent

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Tedesco hopes different experiences will carry him to schools superintendent

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 31, 2012 1:46 PM

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John Tedesco

John Tedesco says that even without his experience on the Wake County Board of Education, his own childhood is reason enough for him to be stumping for the role of state superintendent.

Long before he became a member of the Wake County school board, worked with Big Brothers Big Sisters, established the N.C. Mentoring Children of Prison Initiative and his experience with a non-profit for more than 8,000 homeless, abused and/or at-risk youth, Tedesco was on the threshold of being categorized as at-risk.

"I was one of these free lunch kids growing up, in low-income housing," he said.

The oldest of six children growing up in New York, after his mother passed away he moved to North Carolina, where he raised his younger siblings, who were then still in middle and high school.

He says he understands the "school-to-prison pipeline" that many youth face and is determined to be a "champion for education."

At a time when the state superintendent of schools has become almost a figurehead position, Tedesco said he wants to see it restored to being a strong voice in public education.

"I think my perspective as a community leader, as a program leader, as a parent, all these are very unique from someone who spent 40 years with it," he said, referencing the background of the incumbent, Dr. June Atkinson, whose career has always been in education.

He cited times during her eight-year tenure where the position took a downturn, lacking consistency -- like when the state Board of Education stepped in and appointed a deputy superintendent and later when Gov. Perdue made Bill Harrison chief of education.

"That in itself says something to you about being able to work with your party," he said.

Tedesco said his experience on the Wake County school board has been a good training ground.

"We have a $1.4 billion operating budget. We're the largest school system in the state -- 16th in America -- this year we beat Philadelphia," he said of the district with 150,000 students and 18,000 employees. "Managing a system to that scope and size versus managing one site with, I believe some incredible skill sets.

"We're going to have a Republican General Assembly again and we're more likely to have a Republican governor. I work well with them and I'm able to accomplish an agenda that will get us all working together on behalf of all kids, all taxpayers."

He has already worked to improve the quality of education, he said, including establishing a task force to work on the problem of student suspensions.

"The year when I got on the board, we had 22,000 kids in Wake County suspended. This year, it was down 8,000," he said. "We had to get rid of the culture of low expectations, reach out into the community -- churches, non-profits -- to be partners again."

Tedesco said one thing he would do as chief administrator would be to realign the department.

"I think we can reduce millions of dollars at the 'Pink Palace,'" he said, the oft-used nickname for the six-story granite building that houses the Department of Public Instruction in downtown Raleigh. "I would like to change the culture.

"I think we can reduce millions and millions of dollars that are being spent there and pump them out."

He considers himself to be an idea man -- having placed kiosks in banks to provide better access to information about the Wake school system to developing alternatives to building new schools by putting a ninth-grade center in a Garner theater and negotiating with a large corporation to put a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) school on one of its floors.

It's what he calls a "snapshot of thinking differently."

"We have to take more of the dollars we spend on education and get them closer to the students and teachers," he said. "I'm not saying additional resources wouldn't be helpful. But we have to make sure that the resources we have are going to the right places."

Tedesco prefers to work in a collaborative fashion, and says he is confident his ideas can be replicated in other school districts.

"There's so much that's coming out of Raleigh that doesn't take into account what's happening in neighborhoods in North Carolina," he said.

Which is why he is taking his message on the road, traversing the state campaigning.

"It's the only way I know to do it," he said. "I don't have big money to buy commercials. I just go everywhere.

"I do four or five counties a day, typically, 14 to 16 hours a day, six days a week, and then the other day a week I'm doing that many hours at home."

His message is simple, he says.

"I see promising opportunities if we're willing to think outside the traditional paradigm, find ways to engage families on their terms -- don't expect them to come to PTA at night for tea and cookies," he said. "We have to think differently about how we do education. In public education, we have to be able to challenge our gifted while simultaneously reaching our most vulnerable.

"We have to be able to do both. If you're Ford, you have to be able to build trucks and compact cars."