Atlanta school board declines to extend Meria Carstarphen’s contract

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen delivers her 2018 State of the District address in a non-traditional way while dancing and performing with students during the annual State of the District event at the Walden Sports Complex on Friday, October 5, 2018. AJC file photo HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Controversial decision means a new leader must be hired for APS

While on vacation last week, I spent a lot of time monitoring two wild weather patterns — Hurricane Dorian and tropical depression Carstarphen.

We know how Dorian ended. Now, after the Atlanta school board met for more than three hours behind closed doors today, we learned where APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen landed.

She was swept out by a school board far less enchanted with her than the one that hired her in 2014. The board voted not to extend her contract due to expire in June of 2020, a decision the board chair said was reached in July but only announced now so as not to disrupt the start of school. Beyond saying it was a majority, Chair Jason Esteves declined to say how many or which board members opposed renewing her contract.

When Carstarphen arrived here in 2014, the school board was so smitten that I joked the nine members waltzed into meetings singing the “West Side Story” ballad, “I’ve just met a girl named Meria/ And suddenly that name/ Will never be the same.” Courtney English, the chair of the board at the time, proclaimed, “This moment represents a time for the city to believe again. We’ve been through a dark time, and that time is over.”

Given the various back stories emerging now on why members soured on Carstarphen, the theme song has become “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead.”

Dissenting board members had a range of grievances with her, some personal and some policy-based. Some did not like her decision to create partnerships with charter school networks to remake and manage some of the city’s lowest-performing schools. Nearly 1 out of 5 Atlanta students now attend a locally approved charter school. Others felt Atlanta schools, while registering some progress, were not seeing enough.

There are also allegations the charismatic Carstarphen was difficult, demanding and mercurial. Perhaps, but she was also passionate, dedicated and focused on students, which many will argue should have been enough to outweigh whatever interpersonal flaws she had. Carstarphen earned the respect of many APS teachers and principals. “You can’t take care of kids if you haven’t taken care of educators,” she said in an August interview.

Her omnipresence at APS schools and events also won over many parents and influential Georgians. Among those in her corner: Buckhead Coalition President and former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, former Mayors Shirley Franklin and Andrew Young and former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes. U.S. Rep. John Lewis showed up at a school board meeting last week to urge APS to retain Carstarphen.

Carstarphen’s popularity explains why the law firm for the district brought in a public relations firm to handle damage control in the wake of this controversial vote. There will be substantial damage the PR team can’t gloss over — a school district loses ground and vision when a leader leaves, especially one who made as many changes as Carstarphen. Ousting a superintendent in the midst of a comprehensive improvement plan will stall momentum and spark turnover in key staff.

Carstarphen took over APS in 2014. Her predecessor Erroll B. Davis stabilized APS in the aftermath of the devastating cheating scandal that tainted Beverly Hall’s tenure, but the city still had some of the lowest-performing schools in the state, largely because those schools serve some of the poorest families in Georgia and the poverty goes back generations.

In an interview last month, Carstarphen acknowledged, “Yes, I ruffle feathers. I absolutely speak my truth. I fight really hard for kids.” While saying she was disappointed Atlanta students weren’t showing more improvement on state tests, Carstarphen vowed to keep pushing herself, her staff and the city and taking strong stances — no matter the repercussions.

“Most of the time,” she said, “the less push you give, the longer you get to stay.”

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