Atlanta school board votes to start superintendent search as community reacts

The Atlanta school board’s decision last month to not extend Superintendent Meria Carstarphen’s contract continues to divide the community, with her supporters and critics lining up Monday to give the board an earful.

The board announced Sept. 9 that it would not extend Carstarphen's contract when it expires June 30. The chairman said a majority did not support an extension, and the next week they began discussing a search to hire a successor by July 1.

But Carstarphen’s supporters are pushing for her contract to be extended. At Monday’s board meeting, the first regularly scheduled meeting since the board’s announcement, several asked board members to revisit the issue.

Rogers Barry, the father of a Grady High School graduate, said Carstarphen should have more time to complete her work.

“She’s expressed a desire to remain here,” he said, after a public comment period that at times grew tense. “She’s committed to this community and to the children.”

Representatives of the Georgia Federation of Public Service Employees, which has members employed by Atlanta Public Schools, also asked the board to reconsider.

More than 1,100 people signed an online petition calling for the board to offer an extension at Monday’s meeting. Supporters also have distributed flyers featuring Atlanta educators who support the superintendent.

Despite pleas to retain Carstarphen, board members voted 7-1 Monday to set up the search process. They agreed to pay up to $25,000 to hire a meeting facilitator to conduct public input sessions. Those meetings will be a chance for parents and others to say what skills and experience they want in the district’s next leader.

The board also approved a search timeline and agreed to look for a search firm. Nancy Meister, a Carstarphen backer who represents north Atlanta on the board, opposed the search-related action item, saying she wants to see more transparency in the process.

The superintendent’s detractors said the board has made its decision and now needs to move on.

“If you succumb to coercion … you will make yourself nothing less and nothing more than a paper tiger,” said former state Sen. Vincent Fort.

Several said the board should negotiate to end her employment early.

Monday's meeting followed a month of what one parent called "chaos and confusion." 

The Atlanta Federation of Teachers wrote to school board members Monday morning to express concern about “campaign literature” showing up in teacher and staff members school mailboxes. The literature “is designed to persuade employees to counter the board of education’s decision to release the superintendent at the end of the school year,” wrote Verdaillia Turner, the group’s president.

The federation has opposed Carstarphen’s extension.

“Teachers are reporting to us that they are being coerced, badgered, and harassed by particular principals to sign petitions in support of the superintendent,” Turner wrote in her letter to board members. “We ask that you immediately disavow these petitions and communicate to all personnel that if an administrator or principal or any persons with the authority to evaluate, hire, fire, demote or promote engages or has engaged in these actions be reported to the entire board of education. We are asking employees to also let us know. The spirit of fear and intimidation is overwhelming in the Atlanta Public School system.”

On Sunday, a metro Atlanta political advertising and consulting firm released the results of a poll of 500 Atlanta voters, the majority of whom told pollsters they support extending Carstarphen’s contract. Landmark Communications said that 63.6% of respondents favored a contract extension, while 18% did not and 18% were undecided or had no opinion. Landmark said the poll has a margin of error of 4.1%.

The firm said it conducted and paid for the poll. President Mark Rountree said nobody asked for the polling, but the firm conducts polls “on controversial issues” to show potential clients what it can do.

In interviews after the contract announcement, five board members said they opposed extending Carstarphen’s contract and three supported it. One seat on the board is vacant until voters in central Atlanta’s District 2 elect a representative at a special election later this month; both candidates in the runoff have previously said the board has made its decision and should move on.