Rep. Lewis attends APS board meeting to show support for superintendent

U.S. Rep. John Lewis waded into unusual waters Tuesday when he showed up at an Atlanta school board meeting to show support for Superintendent Meria Carstarphen.

Carstarphen’s future as leader of the 52,000-student district has been uncertain in recent months. She was hired in 2014, in the aftermath of a districtwide cheating scandal, and her contract expires June 30, 2020. Before Tuesday’s meeting, the board had yet to vote on a contract extension or discuss it publicly.

Board chairman Jason Esteves said the board would not make a decision about the superintendent’s contract Tuesday, and he did not announce when that decision could come.

A group of community and business leaders, led by Lewis, are calling for her contract to be renewed. The civil rights icon made a rare appearance at the school board meeting, where he was the first speaker to address the board during the public comment period. In an impassioned speech, he called Carstarphen a smart and gifted leader.

“This is not a time to go back,” he said. “We must go forward.”

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, center, greets audience members in the Atlanta school board audience before the school board's Sept. 3, 2019, meeting. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC

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Others urged the board to be transparent and accountable when deciding the superintendent’s future.

The board needs to be upfront about its goals for Carstarphen and whether she has met them, said Shawnna Hayes-Tavares, president of Southwest and Northwest Atlanta Parents and Partners for Schools.

“Coming into the board meeting today felt kind of circus-y, when you see people who show up who really don’t have a real vested interest in Atlanta Public Schools except to play politics on behalf of it,” she said.

She added: “I understand that this is a big parade for Dr. Carstarphen, and that’s fine … What we don’t know is what she was supposed to do and whether she’s done it.”

The board’s support of Carstarphen has been divided.

The last time the board extended her contract, back in June 2018, it did so by a 6-3 vote.

Typically, the board has voted to extend the superintendent’s contract a year or more in advance of its expiration. This year’s delay has prompted uncertainty about her status and a show of support on behalf of Carstarphen.

Lewis has written two letters supporting the superintendent and circulated a petition for other community leaders to add their names.

More than 20 others signed Lewis’ petition, including former Atlanta mayors Shirley Franklin and Andrew Young and former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes. Atlanta city Councilman Matt Westmoreland, a former school board member, and former Atlanta school board chairman Courtney English also signed.

Lewis told an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Tuesday that the board should extend Carstarphen’s contract.

“I think the superintendent has done a superb job. She’s done great work in leading the school system to a better place,” Lewis said. “She has a lot of energy … I’m a strong supporter.”

Carstarphen has said she’s eager to continue her work. In an editorial board meeting two weeks ago with the AJC, she noted gains in graduation rates, fundraising and an improvement in employee satisfaction but said more work remains to be done to improve academic outcomes for students, particularly students of color.

Currently, the board only has eight members because the District 2 seat, representing central Atlanta, is vacant until a special election Sept. 17 and a potential runoff on Oct. 15.

The three members of the board who voted against extending Carstarphen’s contract the last time previously cited a mix of concerns about the superintendent’s leadership. Their concerns ranged from a perceived emphasis on charter schools at the expense of traditional schools to the belief that APS needs to be more accountable for finances and students’ academic progress.

At a protest held before the first day of school, the Atlanta Federation of Teachers and other groups called for Carstarphen and Esteves’ removal. Demonstrators said they oppose the direction the district is headed, including the administration and board’s decision to hire charter school operators to run six traditional APS schools as part of a strategy to improve troubled schools.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen greets children on a school bus on Aug. 12, 2019, the first day of the school year. AJC file photo. BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

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