Atlanta board chair: Tensions with Meria Carstarphen escalated behind the scenes

Jason Esteves says superintendent’s relationship with APS board reached point of no return
Atlanta school board chairman Jason Esteves (left) and Superintendent Meria Carstarphen listen to public comment during a special meeting to discuss whether to extend Carstarphen’s contract. (Photo by Phil Skinner).

Atlanta school board chairman Jason Esteves (left) and Superintendent Meria Carstarphen listen to public comment during a special meeting to discuss whether to extend Carstarphen’s contract. (Photo by Phil Skinner).

In an almost 90-minute interview this morning, the chairman of the Atlanta school board explained his opposition to extending the contract of a superintendent he said he admired and felt bettered APS.

Jason Esteves said it came down to the realization there would not be enough votes on the board to extend Meria Carstarphen's contract beyond June when it expires. The strained and charged relationship between Carstarphen and some board members had reached a point of no return, he said, and the priority was forging a way forward that protected the improvements APS had experienced under her leadership and created a more collaborative environment to enable even greater strides.

In her past jobs, Carstarphen was also reported to have “rocky” relationships with her boards. Atlanta knew that reputation when it hired her in 2014. But the district sought her proven skills at turning around low-performing schools, hiring smart principals and improving instruction.

Five years later, those talents proved insufficient to compensate for an inability to coalesce with her school board.

Esteves said he could have waited until a special election to fill the District 2 school board seat in November to consider the extension, but the majority of candidates seeking the open seat indicated they would not back a contract extension. He said his decision reflected his belief the district would be in a better position to launch the process of finding a replacement for Carstarphen now rather than waiting until after the election.

He understands why people are baffled that he’d land in the “no” camp despite his long support for Carstarphen and his admission he remains a fan of hers. He says he could have continued to work with her.

But that was not true for the board as a whole.

The public was unaware of the deteriorating dynamic between the superintendent and the board because the board hid the escalating tensions and incompatibility, he said. “We have done a very good job of keeping a lot of the stuff behind the scenes and not airing them out in public. I understand truly that people are frustrated and want to know more – I am not in a position to really explain or try to explain the differences that board members had with the superintendent that developed over time: And I think it is important to say that it is not something that developed overnight or in the last few weeks. This has been developing over time.”

Esteves understands the risks of losing a charismatic superintendent who made many positive changes and was successful in the challenges she was hired to overcome.

“We thought timing was important. We thought given where we are with a new strategic plan, we were either going to double down on Dr. Carstarphen’s leadership or move toward a new leader,” he said. “Given the divide on the board, the consensus was to continue the progress we were making and had made together, we needed to do that with a new leader. We felt if we don’t make this change, then it will impede progress and the dysfunction will reverberate through classrooms. We wanted to avoid that.”

Esteves understands the decision is causing pain among some parents and teachers, “but we believe in the long-term that we will be able to find a great superintendent who can continue and accelerate that growth.”

“I want to make sure not to take anything away from Dr. Carstarphen,” he said. “She did exactly what we hired her to do when we hired her five years ago. She took a school system that was in crisis and solidified a foundation, turned a lot of things around, and put us in a direction that we needed. But with this reflection point we are at, the management decision came down to: Can we continue with the leader we have and still get the same progress, or can we increase those gains by having a different leader?”

I pointed out to Esteves that this decision comes fraught with risks. A strong leader may be wary of coming to a district that ran off a school chief it acknowledged was capable and competent and who worked night and day. And it did so because she was also a challenge to manage and pushed back when she felt she was wronged or when her plans were thwarted.

Esteves said risks existed with either course of action.

“We also know that a split between the board and the superintendent causes issues as well. It is one of those things where you look at both paths and you have to make a judgment. Do you take the risk that the board and superintendent are headed down a path that is not positive or do you make a change now given where you are with the strategic plan and with the organization and bring in a new leader who can hopefully do that work and be here for the next five years? It’s not easy.”

He is confident Atlanta can attract a high-caliber school chief, despite the awkward ending to Carstarphen’s tenure.

“Given Atlanta’s uniqueness and where APS is today, we will be able to attract candidates who, if selected, will be great superintendents for APS,” said Esteves. “We were in a unique space back in 2014 when we selected Meria. We were coming off a change election and had a clear mandate on transforming APS. For Meria, that was exactly what she was looking for. We are not looking for someone to fill her shoes. It is a different place; they will have to bring their own shoes.”