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APS faces rocky future with non-renewal of Meria Carstarphen’s contract

Maria Saporta

By Maria Saporta

The recent move by the Atlanta Board of Education to not extend Superintendent Meria Carstarphen’s contract raises serious concerns about the future of Atlanta’s public schools.

I have a sinking feeling about the board’s lack of wisdom or strategic thinking about what the future holds. This is a board where a majority of members might agree they no longer want Carstarphen, but they appear to agree on little else. There is no board consensus on where we should go from here.

Meria Carstarphen interacts with APS student (Special: Carstarphen’s twitter feed)

Just two questions would expose that lack of consensus. Should we have more public charters, fewer or none? Should we have more investment in the majority-white northern sections of Atlanta or more investment in the predominantly-black neighborhoods on the Southside?

This is a divided board. And more importantly, it is a board with a relatively short shelf-life. They will be up for re-election in November, 2021. Several board members are not expected to seek re-election. And I believe those who opposed Carstarphen have hurt themselves politically.

On Monday, Sept. 9, the board met for three hours in executive session (where the public was not privy to the discussion). The board then released a statement that simply said it would not be extending Carstarphen’s contract beyond the current end date June 30, 2020.

Carstarphen has let it be known she wanted to stay because her job was not finished.

When election day comes, remember that these are the board members who did not support Carstarphen: Leslie Grant, Jason Esteves (chair), Cynthia Briscoe Brown, Michelle Olympiadis and Erika Mitchell.

Those who did support Carstarphen were: Eshé Collins, Kandis Wood Jackson and Nancy Miester, who told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the executive session: “It’s a very sad day for the kids in the City of Atlanta.”

Let me tell you how sad it is.

Presumably the board will begin searching for a new superintendent to begin July 1, 2020. But this board will only be in place for 18 months before a new board takes over.

U.S. Congressman John Lewis urges the APS board to renew Meria Carstarphen’s contract at a recent board meeting (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Certainly, a strong and qualified superintendent would think twice before coming to Atlanta to work for a board with such uncertainty of future leadership.

And any prospective candidate would have to question why he or she would want to work for a board that had parted ways with a successful superintendent who was making significant progress in student outcomes during her five-year tenure.

In other words, this board has done a major disservice to our city and our public school system by not thinking through this move.

As I see it, we likely are doomed to having several years of instability at APS coupled with a lack of strategic leadership for the foreseeable future.

It reminds me of a similar situation we had at the Atlanta Housing Authority when in 2011, the recently-elected Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed decided he did not want Renee Glover as the agency’s CEO.

At the time, Glover was considered among the best, if not the very best, CEO of a housing authority in the county. Glover had transformed the city’s public housing “projects” into mixed-income communities where there was no distinction among those who were receiving subsidized rent and those paying market rates.

Glover left the agency in 2013, with a negotiated separation agreement. While Reed was able to push her out, he had no plan on how to move the agency forward. As a result, the agency has had recurring turnover. And the Atlanta Housing Authority has built almost no new housing units or spearheaded the development of new communities in the intervening seven years.

Eugene Jones Jr., CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority, who is coming to Atlanta (Special)

On Tuesday, Sept. 10 (the day after the APS board met behind closed doors), the Atlanta Housing Authority hired Eugene Jones Jr., CEO of Chicago’s housing authority who has more than 35 years of experience in the field. It appears we finally have tapped a decent professional to tackle the affordable housing crisis in our city.

But I can’t help but think about all the years we have wasted because we kicked out a leader at the top of her game and because we didn’t have a game plan on moving forward.

Similarities exist with Carstarphen’s situation. It is not clear whether Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms played a role with pushing her out, but it is clear the mayor has yet to voice support for the superintendent.

So we now have had a superintendent who also is at the top of her game. She is considered to be among the best, if not the best, public schools superintendent in the country. Carstarphen is applauded for her energetic leadership style and tireless focus on improving results for APS students.

By pushing aside a strong leader at APS at this critical moment when real progress is underway, I fear we are destined to years of floating aimlessly in rough waters without a clear direction of where we’re going.

It would have made so much more sense for this board to give Carstarphen a two-year extension so the new board taking office in January 2022 could select its own leader and implement its own strategy.

APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, schools staff, and Rotarians on Aug. 5 (Photo by Maggie Lee)

Isn’t it only fair for this board to let the future board decide who should serve as the next superintendent of APS?

It would be so refreshing if current APS board members would reconsider their stance. After all, I don’t think they had a clue how their behind-closed-doors decision would send shock waves throughout the community and how much support Carstarphen enjoys in every corner of Atlanta.

It’s not unheard of for boards to reverse their stance.

The board of the Houston Independent School District voted 5-4 on Oct. 11, 2018 to replace interim superintendent Grenita Lathan. But that move sparked such a backlash in the community that a week later the board voted unanimously to reinstate Lathan.

We should be so lucky.

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Maria Saporta
Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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13 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Bonnie O'Neill September 17, 2019 9:34 am

    What is the most effective way to express dissatisfaction with this APS Board decision. How can Atlanta do what Houston did? Thanks, Bonnie

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    Martha Porter Hall September 17, 2019 9:47 am

    Thank you, Maria! What can we do to show support for Carstarphen? The new AHA sounds like just what we need. How can we get the APS Board to reconsider?

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    JWK57 September 17, 2019 9:47 am

    Why is it so difficult to accomplish the most simple of tasks in Atlanta? Why are there so many egos and vested interests. All we ask is that they don’t steal from us too much and remember to turn the lights off when they leave the office. Is it too much to ask? Most of them would not survive a year in the private sector, yet they act like they invented white bread.

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    Samuel A. Young September 17, 2019 10:17 am

    She has supposedly completed the task for which she was hired . One of wonderful things about the situation is that no one is irreplaceable.

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  5. Avatar
    Angela September 17, 2019 10:28 am

    Thank you for this insightful, thoughtful editorial about Meria and APS. It has been heartening to watch APS turn around after the horrible cheating scandal and to now see the short-sightedness of the APS Board is just awful. I am so sad for the City of Atlanta, our school children and all the residents of the City. I only wish the Board was mature enough to admit a mistake has been made and to change their vote. Alas, I’m sure their egos will not allow them to do so.

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    C. McKenzie September 17, 2019 11:11 am

    I think the board should reinstate the superintendent. I was hopeful that Mays and Douglass High Schools would become high performing schools under the superintendent ‘s leadership . She was making progress and now we have to start over. The board is wrong to punish our children and taxpayers. Isn’t there something parents and taxpayers can do to get her reinstated?

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  7. Avatar
    Joyce Edwards September 17, 2019 12:18 pm

    Frankly, I am disappointed that all of the media seems to only concentrate on one side of the issue. So far, I have not seen one article where parents, faculty and other community leaders who were not in favor of Dr. Carstarphen remaining with APS were interviewed. It seems to me that all the talk is coming from those who have more of a monetary or political motive than the welfare of the education of our children in the public schools. APS is not perfect by a long shot, however, until there is equal money spent in both the North and South sides of the city, nothing will change no matter who is superintendent or who is on the board. Our children are pawns in a very dangerous game that is hurting them and our city. The repercussions of this will be felt for years to come.

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  8. Avatar
    Vanshalay September 17, 2019 12:36 pm

    In my opinion they voted against Meria Carstarphen because she ruffled feathers that their corrupt behinds didn’t like being ruffled. And the PARENTS who claim to be fed up with her are probably mad that their kids can’t get a FREE RIDE through their education anymore.
    I’d love for her to come clean up Dekalb County’s Corrupted Poorly ran school district. Dr. Green knows he’s terrible which is why he’s quitting. So i hope she’s exploring the option.

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  9. Avatar
    WaitButWhy September 17, 2019 2:59 pm

    SR wondering if you ever asked….

    1. How many times during her tenure she threatened to quit?
    2. How many ‘bigger’ jobs she expressed interest in while still under contract with APS?
    3. Why she demands to be paid more that administrators of much larger districts? At $400k/year I don’t think the district will have trouble finding applicants.
    4. How APS justifies counting 100% of spending given to charters as classroom spend, whereas traditional school count as 60%? Remember charter students contribute $0 to the ever increasing unfunded pension bill.
    5. How much changes in calculation methodology (and reduction in graduation requirements) contributed to the vaunted increase in graduation rate?
    6. Why there are high schools that cost $45M to build with a capacity of 1750 students that graduate <50 kids a year at a cost of nearly $20k/student?
    etc, etc.

    Lots more to running a $1B enterprise that charisma and PR. Only thing this whole episode has proven is that most folks only pay attention to the PR

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  10. Avatar
    Lisa Humphreys September 17, 2019 7:00 pm

    I was at the board meeting where they announced Dr. Carstarphen’s fate. I had emailed the board members the week before and asked them if they were not in favor of extending Meria’s contract, to please explain why. Three of the board members responded, only one gave a concrete answer. At the Sept. 9th meeting, my husband went before the board and asked the same question. The response was complete silence. How can we have faith and trust in a school board that feels they are above communicating with the very parents and students they serve? In an interview on NPR’s Closer Look with Rose Scott, Jason Esteves struggled to answer the very same question, WHY? I live in Buckhead, many of my neighbors choose to send their children to private schools because they feel they have more control regarding their child’s educational experience. The Board’s actions create mistrust and push potential families towards private education, which in turn hurts the public school system. Families that do not have the means to send their child to a private school are stuck with the disfunction that has long been the reputation of APS.

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    Jason Gerling September 17, 2019 8:07 pm

    The interesting thing here in the comments is that I don’t disagree with any of it. What is uncomfortable as a taxpayer is the lack of a highly transparent “why” from the folks who made the decision – who are elected officials. If some of these comments are valid… and I don’t contest that they are, then they speak to a broader issue in APS that taxpayers have a right to know about, understand and then remediate in part by electing board members who will reinforce policies and select a Superintendent with the qualifications and visions to continue correcting underlying problems. I don’t know that the media is all that one-sided on this in a way that is unfairly skewed, only one side has really spoken and that’s a problem right there. The board needs to offer a firm rationale and speak to the why. All the hearsay out there is not sufficient to form an opinion if you’re not “in the know” – and lord knows not being “in the know” doesn’t preclude you from ponying up the taxes for what goes down!

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    Gradyparent September 17, 2019 9:53 pm

    Here are the public comments from the BofE – not very illuminating. https://www.ajc.com/news/local/what-board-members-say-about-carstarphen-decision/FA3fU6hPfqwB9myAKlmCtN/#

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  13. Avatar
    DL September 18, 2019 9:39 am

    didn’t she want to use more public $ for pseudo public but private charter schools?

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