Atlanta school board names superintendent finalist

The Atlanta school board on Tuesday announced the finalist for the superintendent job.

The Atlanta school board on Tuesday announced its pick for the superintendent job.

Lisa Herring -- a native of Macon, Spelman College graduate and the current superintendent of Birmingham City School District-- is the board’s choice to lead Atlanta Public Schools. Herring is wrapping up her third year as superintendent of the Alabama district.

Georgia law requires the Atlanta board to wait at least 14 days before it can vote to hire her. That time is typically used to introduce the finalist and give the public a chance to ask questions and vet the candidate. Employees, parents and others will have to settle for virtual online meetings in the coming weeks because of restrictions aimed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The board wants to have a new superintendent on the job by July 1.

The board announced in September, to the surprise and consternation of some, that a majority of members did not support extending Superintendent Meria Carstarphen's contract, which expires June 30. The board launched a national search that resulted in 84 applications.

It cited Herring’s experience in urban public school systems, partnerships she built with civic organizations and businesses, and her work to try to turn around low-performing schools as among the reasons she stood out.

“We believe with her passion for serving students paired with her focus on equity and achievement for all, Dr. Herring is the best leader to take APS to a new level and close the achievement gap for so many of our students,” said board chairman Jason Esteves in a written statement.

Herring went through four rounds of interviews, including in-person talks before the coronavirus shutdowns. In a video message announcing her selection, Esteves said Herring "shot to the top and impressed all of us with her Georgia roots, passion for equity and student success and strong experience."

If hired, she’ll step into a high-profile, often political role in a much bigger district in Georgia’s capital city during a pandemic that’s upended education.

It’s a high stakes job amid great uncertainty and enormous challenges. Big decisions are looming for APS and other districts about how to manage budgets and support the many students who are expected to fall behind while school buildings are closed.

Back in September, board members listed a range of reasons for the decision to find a new superintendent, from a perceived need for more academic and financial accountability to a desire to find a new leader to guide the district’s next strategic plan.

Carstarphen’s supporters have repeatedly called on the board to keep her or at least delay her departure. They’re still questioning the wisdom of switching leaders at this particular moment.

“It seems illogical and risky to go through a major leadership transition at a time when we would be transitioning over 50,000 students back into school after a crisis like this,” said North Atlanta High School parent Brigitte Peck.

Carstarphen, hired in the wake of the APS cheating scandal, has been hailed for her crisis management. Peck said that while she’s pulling for Herring to be successful, she’s concerned about how a brand new leader who doesn’t know the principals or the current leadership team can reopen the district with little time to prepare.

“I hope she’s fantastic. I’m banking on it,” Peck said. “I hope they already have a strategy in place to support her through this.”

Carstarphen has not announced what she’ll do after leaving APS. In a written statement issued Tuesday, she said the job of leading the district during the pandemic has been all-consuming. She said she’s been focused on distributing food and devices to families, keeping employees safe, responding to new federal and state rules and laying the foundations for next school year.

“Given the demands and requirements of Atlanta Public Schools especially during this time, my only priority is to ensure the continued success of Atlanta’s public school system and our children and families,” she said.

The Birmingham district is less than half the size of APS. It enrolled roughly 22,700 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade this year, compared to more than 52,000 in Atlanta. The district has 42 schools, while APS has 87.

Herring’s district employs more than 2,700 employees and has an annual budget of about $302 million, according to its website. APS employs more than 6,000 full-time workers and has a general fund budget of more than $850 million.

The districts do share some notable similarities.

Both are members of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation’s largest urban districts.

Like APS, the Birmingham district is overseen by a nine-member elected school board. And, as in Atlanta, many Birmingham students are low-income and African American.

APS has tried in recent years to turn around many of its historically low-performing schools, a challenge familiar to Birmingham. The district had the state's highest number of schools on Alabama's so-called "failing schools" list, which represents the bottom 6% of public schools based on test scores. Sixteen of the 75 schools that appeared on the November, 2019 list were in the Birmingham system. Birmingham had 20 schools on the list in January, 2019.

The Atlanta board applauded Herring for her work to improve schools. The Birmingham district received a "C" grade on the most recent Alabama Department of Education report card. That's up from an "F" grade, according to information released by the Atlanta board.

In 2018, the district received full accreditation after the state intervened amid problems with low cash reserves and infighting among board members, according to the news site AL.com.

Herring cited her skills as a school counselor, which she said help her to “listen and learn.”

“My calling is truly to serve all people regardless of their background or influence and it would be an honor to serve the people of Atlanta,” she said, in a written statement issued by the Atlanta board.

Herring joined Esteves and the other eight members of the Atlanta school board in a recorded video message about the announcement.

“I’m excited to work alongside this board,” she said in that message.

Before going to Birmingham, she served about a year as chief academic officer for Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky. That district enrolls about 100,000 students and is the 29th largest in the nation, according to its website. 

Prior to that post, Herring held several administrative positions at Charleston County School District in South Carolina. She worked there as deputy superintendent of academics and chief academic officer, among other roles.

While in Charleston, Herring was among the finalists for that district's superintendent post but did not get the job, according to the Post and Courier newspaper. She eventually hired an attorney and in 2015 renegotiated her contract with the district, the paper reported. Earlier that year, she was also finalist for the Birmingham superintendent job. Though she didn't get the Alabama job then, she would be named superintendent just a couple of years later. 

Herring spent the first part of her career working in DeKalb County School District from 1999 to 2007, according to her LinkedIN profile. In DeKalb, she worked as a school counselor and as assistant director of student support services; she also worked in the Bibb County school system, according to a biography provided by the Atlanta board.

Herring and her daughter, Imani, are both Spelman graduates, and Herring completed observational field work at Atlanta’s Therrell High School.

She has a master’s degree from the University of South Carolina and a doctorate from Georgia Southern University, among other academic credentials.

Those who have questions for Herring before her appointment can ask questions or provide the board with comments by emailing atlantaboard@atlanta.k12.ga.us or by calling (404) 802-2267.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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