Rift on APS board over superintendent, as district’s law firm seeks PR service

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Meria J. Carstarphen was hired in 2014.  Chad Rhym/ Chad.Rhym@ajc.com

Credit: Chad Rhym

Credit: Chad Rhym

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Meria J. Carstarphen was hired in 2014. Chad Rhym/ Chad.Rhym@ajc.com

The Atlanta school board will meet Monday to discuss Superintendent Meria Carstarphen’s future with the district, and the district’s law firm has tapped a public relations company to help explain the board’s decision.

Carstarphen's contract expires June 30, 2020. The board has been silent so far on whether or not it will renew her contract. 

Emails obtained late Friday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in response to an open-records request indicate the board is divided about the decision and that at least one member questions the transparency of the decision-making process.

The district’s law firm Nelson Mullins plans to hire public relations company Jackson Spalding to provide communications expertise.

In a Thursday night email from board member Nancy Meister to board chairman Jason Esteves, Meister said the decision-making process has not been transparent and expressed her support of Carstarphen. She also questioned the involvement of the public relations firm.

“Unfortunately, I am really concerned about how you are leading this process as (board of education) chair. None of this was done in a fully transparent way, something this district has strived to achieve over the past six years. I feel we are headed down a disorganized path that is not putting the interest of kids first,” she wrote.

Esteves said the district’s law firm recommended seeking assistance from a public relations company “to help us communicate the will of the board.” The law firm will handle the hiring of the firm. Esteves said it’s not unusual for the law firm to hire experts and other attorneys to assist the district when needed. He said he did not know how much the communication services would cost.

Esteves has not publicly shared his personal opinion about whether or not the superintendent’s contract should be extended. He defended the process the board has taken as it reaches a decision.

“Board members have had multiple conversations with each other about the superintendent’s contract … both having one-on-one conversations, but most importantly we’ve had multiple board conversations in executive session about the contract. And, we’ve also had multiple conversations both individually and together with the superintendent,” he said.

The board’s vice chairwoman, Eshé Collins, also defended the board process in an email responding to Meister. Collins’ email was not included in the district’s response to the AJC’s public-records request. She sent it at 11:31 a.m. Friday.

Collins, like Meister, wants to see the superintendent’s contract renewed, but she disagreed with Meister’s assessment of the board’s decision-making process.

“As you and everyone knows, I am a supporter of Meria and her contract extension as well. Also, we both know where all the board members stand as well. Everyone has been very open, transparent and staunch about their positions. We both know this. I don’t think it’s fair to state that this hasn’t been a transparent process,” Collins wrote.

The only item on Monday’s agenda is for the board to go into closed session to discuss a personnel matter. The meeting agenda, which was released after 6 p.m. Friday, states that the board does not expect to take action.

Extending Carstarphen’s contract would require a board vote, but officials have said letting it expire would not.

Esteves declined to comment on whether or not the board planned to make or announce a decision about Carstarphen’s future at APS.

Carstarphen was hired in 2014. The board last voted to renew her contract in 2018 by a 6-3 vote. Board members who voted against extending her contract the last time cited a mix of reasons — ranging from the need to think about long-term leadership to concerns about charter schools and accountability for finances and students’ academic performance.

At a school board meeting this week, a line of Carstarphen supporters — including U.S. Rep. John Lewis — urged the school board to keep her as the district's leader.

Carstarphen has said repeatedly that she wants to remain on the job and has touted gains the district has made under her tenure — from higher graduation rates to lower principal turnover and the implementation of a plan to turnaround the lowest-performing schools.

The school board will meet at 9 a.m. Monday at the district’s headquarters, 130 Trinity Ave SW.