The probable next superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools is coming off a controversial tenure in Austin, Texas, where public ire over budget cuts and a school closing rose as much as the improved graduation rates and finances.
Meria Carstarphen presided for five years over a system almost twice the size of Atlanta’s. She left it in better financial and academic shape, but riled enough voters to undermine the support of the school board. With her contract set to expire in a little over a year, there has been no vote in favor of extending it.
“You make some calls over five years that make some people mad,” said Mark Williams, a former Austin school board president who pushed to hire Carstarphen. He and other supporters say she advocated for needed reforms. Critics say she rammed through changes without consulting the majority Hispanic parents in the Austin Independent School District.
“Her corporate-reform-backed agenda didn’t fly here because we fought it, and that’s why she’s leaving,” said Vincent Tovar, whose wife is a teacher, and whose daughter attends Austin schools.
Paul Saldaña, another aggrieved parent, said Carstarphen refused to meet with critics, which he said helped galvanize a movement against the school administration that has endured. “If anything,” he said, “we can thank her for organizing our community.”
Carstarphen, 44, is the presumed next superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools. The school board hasn’t voted to hire her yet, since a two-week wait is required by state law. But she emerged Thursday as the lone candidate after a search to replace Erroll Davis, who is expected to leave the job by July.
Drew Scheberle, a senior vice president at the Austin Chamber of Commerce, said members of the business community pushed to hire someone like Carstarphen, and they were pleased with the results. She cut a quarter of the jobs in the central office yet improved academic outcomes, he said. “She’s left this community stronger than how she found it.”
Williams, the former school board president, said Carstarphen cut nearly a tenth of the $700 million budget, eliminating 1,100 positions. She amended teacher contracts to one year from three, so that it would be easier to terminate the service of subpar employees, he said. She also established programs at two high schools that allow students to take college courses.
But it was a 2011 proposal to close a school and reopen it as a charter operation that made the biggest waves, he said. “That caused a revolt.”
That action was approved by one school board but reversed by another after an election changed the makeup of the board.
In December, during her annual evaluation, board members urged Carstarphen to build better relationships with the community and didn’t extend her contract, which expires in June 2015, according to The Austin American-Statesman.
Some of Carstarphen’s difficulties might have been specific to the place. Gus Garcia, a former Austin mayor who served on the school board decades ago, said Carstarphen had a hard time “connecting” with the Hispanic population. “She was never able to get close to the Latino community,” he said.
The Selma, Alabama-born Carstarphen has a bachelor’s in political science and Spanish from Tulane University, a master’s from Auburn University, a master’s and doctorate from Harvard, and got her start in education teaching middle school Spanish and documentary photography.
Williams said controversy should be expected of any leader who makes big changes, such as cutting budgets and personnel. But he credits Carstarphen for increasing Austin’s graduation and college-ready rates, and counts one other metric as an important achievement in a high-poverty school system: “We’ve been able to keep some of our middle class in the school district, which some other districts haven’t,” he said.
Carstarphen will face similar challenges in Atlanta, a city with stark juxtapositions of poverty and wealth, a majority minority student population and an engaged chamber of commerce. She also must rebuild the trust lost after a cheating scandal that has played out in the criminal courts.
Scheberle, the chamber official, said that despite the controversy surrounding her, Carstarphen managed to stay in Austin beyond the typical three-year tenure for a Texas superintendent. He said she is a “relentless” leader who would work as hard in Atlanta as she did in Austin.
Ken Zarifis, the president of Education Austin, the area’s teachers advocacy group, described her as “tenacious” and “deeply committed.”
He also seemed relieved to see her go. “I’m glad she’s made that choice and has moved on elsewhere,” he said, adding that, if she becomes Atlanta’s superintendent, “She’s going to have half the students but double the problems.”