The Atlanta Board of Education has opted to not renew the contract of Superintendent Dr. Meria Carstarphen.
Dr. Carstarphen has been superintendent since 2014, and her current contract expires June 30, 2020. The board will enlist an executive search firm to search for a new superintendent, the board said. The superintendent would not comment beyond a statement released to APS employees. She will be meeting with the media on Wednesday, Sept. 11.
Board leadership notified the superintendent that there was not majority support for an extension in July. The board waited to announce the leaning publicly as not to disrupt the beginning of the school year.
Dr. Carstarphen has faced backlash from some community members over her charter school initiative, which has brought outside organizations into the district to help operate some APS schools.
Board Chair Jason F. Esteves and Vice-Chair Eshe’ P. Collins spoke on WABE radio Monday regarding the board’s decision. WABE’s broadcast license is owned by the Atlanta Board of Education.
“Dr. Carstarphen has been an amazing leader, but this work is not done by one person and the board has been very integral in pushing a lot of the directive and the movement and the progress that has been made,” Collins said. “I definitely want to [be] clear that as a strong supporter of her’s, that sausage making, it gets ugly, you get into the disagree to agree moments, but we have all been on the same direction of doing great things for kids.”
Esteves commented on Dr. Carstarphen’s “collaboration” issues.
“I think there were plenty of opportunities to work together, and it didn’t quite work out,” Esteves said. “We have known as a board, as a superintendent, since July that there was an issue with the extension, and I think we need to focus a lot of time on getting those votes, getting the agreement, getting consensus amongst board members with the superintendent to work towards an agreement that would allow us to get that extension and that didn’t happen.”
Leslie Grant, District 1 representative, voted against the contract renewal last year and was in favor of not renewing the contract on Sept. 9.
“There’s a lot of reasons that have to do with HR best practices and legal issues, and we are trying to protect the district and not give people too much information that might make us vulnerable or legal issues,” said Grant. “Every one of us understands how frustrating it is for the constituents, for the parents, for the students, and for the employees, how utterly annoying this is that we cannot give better, more complete facts and understanding about what all of these issues are.”
Three members of the board supported renewing her contract.
Some who opposed Dr. Carstarphen were concerned with transparency from the superintendent as well the board.
“The accountability related to the charter operators is a huge thing, but the lack of her wanting to tell us what she is doing, a lack of communication around those areas, is the main thing,” said Shawna Hayes-Tavares, a community member and APS parent and former school board candidate. “It’s not that she isn’t doing them; it’s that we don’t know if she’s doing, what she’s supposed to be doing.”
The board did acknowledge concerns from the public about transparency.
“I know that people have been frustrated that we have not been able to talk about this more,” said District 8 Representative Cynthia Briscoe Brown. “I feel like we have done the best we can given the restrictions we have about executive session and not talking about personnel matters. We did specifically agree with her that while we were trying to get school started that we would not go out and talk about this.”
However, the board’s decision to not extend the superintendent’s expiring contract surprised many observers.
“I really had thought that not only were graduation rates and test scores moving in the right direction, but also, everybody seemed to be pulling in the same direction,” said Jay Sullivan, U.S. History teacher of three years and an APS parent. “It seemed like a district that was working.”
Ann Cramer chaired the Atlanta Public Schools search committee for the superintendent, which brought Dr. Carstarphen to Atlanta five years ago.
“We were very impressed with her energy, her intellect and her ability to really focus on students,” Cramer said. “She really loves the kids and brings really innovative ideas.”
The board acknowledged difficulties faced by the superintendent, as Dr. Carstarphen began her tenure after Beverly Hall, the former superintendent who was indicted in the aftermath of the 2009 APS cheating scandal and Erroll Davis served as an interim superintendent. Dr. Carstarphen came from the Austin Independent School District in Austin, Texas.
“Her efforts, along with the hard work of our students, families, teachers, administrators, partners and the board, have helped repair many of the issues that plagued our school system a decade ago,” the board said in a statement earlier today announcing the superintendent’s contract would not be extended. “Dr. Carstarphen inherited a system in crisis and we appreciate her leadership during that difficult time.”
Briscoe Brown expressed similar respect for the superintendent.
“APS was on fire, and we needed a professional firefighter, and Meria Carstarphen was fabulous,” Briscoe Brown said. “She came in and put out the fire; she got us moving in the right direction with the help of a lot of people. I think, five years later, we are in a place that feels more like mud than fire. I think the work ahead is going to be slow and difficult and tedious, and I think that requires a different set of gifts and passion.”
Hayes-Tavares also noted that many who are in opposition do not disagree with all of Dr. Carstarphen’s initiatives, but have been concerned with literacy rates in the district.
“We felt the superintendent’s priorities were misguided and misled as it relates to her ability to lead the school district,” Hayes-Tavares said. “For her not to address the literacy issue until three years into her term is, for me, enough alone, good enough not to renew her contract.”
Community leaders in support of the superintendent expressed satisfaction with her performance.
“Generally speaking, I think Atlanta can be proud of the person that was chosen for this job,” said Sam Massell, who served as Atlanta’s mayor from 1970 to 1974 and is president of the Buckhead Coalition. The nonprofit works to advocate for the community interests in the north Atlanta community.
Dr. Carstarphen’s potential departure brought a groundswell of support at the Sept. 3 school board meeting, including a plea from U.S. Congressman John Lewis, a Democrat who represents Georgia’s 5th District, which includes Atlanta.
“I think that there are a lot of good people in our city, and it’s wonderful when they get involved like this, and it’s pretty impressive to me that here we have a U.S. Congressman, a former governor, a former ambassador, a former mayor— two if you count me— a former city council member, a former president of the Board of Education,” Massell said of the public support for the superintendent. “I think that it is meaningful that they have all come forth.”
Supporters include former Mayor and U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young, former Mayor Shirley Franklin, former Gov. Roy Barnes, former gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter, as well as city councilmen Andre Dickens and Matt Westmoreland.
Since her term began in 2014, many students have only ever really known Dr. Carstarphen as APS’s superintendent.
“I guess I just can’t really see a different school without her because she’s what we’ve always had,” said senior Lindsay Schroeder.
Looking forward, some community members are looking for an APS insider to become the next superintendent.
“We have to put together a criteria and a profile of what should be there,” Hayes-Tavares said. “I think we need more than one candidate that’s in the in … It has to be someone who understands our school district.”
But many are just looking for as much unity as possible among the board and community in their decision.
“I’m hoping that the board members will be 100 percent behind the new superintendent selected, that everybody will feel that they are moving in a positive way,” Massell said. “That’s what I wish. I think that’s a reasonable request. I think it’s an appropriate request. I think it’s doable.”
Members of the board are looking to structure a new strategic plan for July, 2020 that will serve in part as criteria for the next superintendent.
“Transitioning now allows us to hire for the plan instead of developing the plan around the person,” Briscoe Brown said. “We, in the last five years, have built a great foundation, and now we have to build strong walls and structures so that they will last for years to come.“