Atlanta education: Mayor seeks education officer; tasks not yet clear

When Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms names a chief education officer to serve on her revamped cabinet, Atlanta will join a growing number of cities delving into school issues outside the traditional municipal sphere.

Bottoms, who took office in January, is in the midst of an administrative shakeup as she restructures a team inherited from her predecessor, Kasim Reed. Last week, she announced the replacement of multiple key leaders — including the city attorney and chief financial officer — and said a national search is underway to hire an education officer.

While campaigning, Bottoms promised to "reset" a rocky relationship between the city and Atlanta Public Schools that deteriorated under Reed's administration. As a first step in February, she gave the school district the deeds to 31 school properties over which APS had battled with Reed. Her other proposal? Hire someone to prioritize education and partner with the school district.

That plan drew initial skepticism from APS. Since then, in the hubbub surrounding high-profile city departures, little has been shared publicly about the national search underway for an education aide, or exactly what that person will be expected to do.

At a December election forum, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen questioned the position that Bottoms described then as a "director of education."

“We think it’s another layer of bureaucracy,” Carstarphen said, at the time. “And some have even said …. that it’s code for mayoral takeover or mayoral control.”

Bottoms dismissed that notion.

“I think that any elected official will tell you that school takeover is considered political suicide, so I can tell you now that I’m not interested in jumping off a bridge,” she said during the same event. “Very much like we have a director of planning, we have a director of public works, we have someone who is over the airport. I think that there has to be someone each and every day focused on education, knowing that APS leads the efforts on behalf of our communities.”

Carstarphen said in a recent interview that she didn’t know the status of the search and said no one will know the impact until someone is in place.

“The point is to get people talking, communicating and coordinating so that we have an agenda for the city and that’s not just one or two things,” Carstarphen said.

In addition to making sure the city has “a highly functioning relationship” with APS, Bottoms said in December that the aide would focus on early childhood education and vocational training.

Spokesmen for the mayor did not return repeated requests for comment or answer questions about the education job. Bottoms tapped SunTrust Banks chairman Bill Rogers and Virginia Hepner, a former banking executive and previous Woodruff Arts Center president, to lead the search committee. Both declined to comment.

It’s become more common for mayors to appoint education aides even in places, like Atlanta, where the mayor doesn’t control the school system. Such hires are often closely linked to concerns about equity in communities where students come to school hungry or lack health care or have other needs cities can help public schools with limited budgets address.

These mayors see education as key to creating the strong workforce and quality of life that thriving cities want to cultivate. Their education advisers can use the bully pulpit and the city’s resources to support educational initiatives.

“They are the eyes and ears of the mayors to really be in touch with the school district, to know what the issues are that are percolating,” said Audrey Hutchinson, the National League of Cities director of education and expanded learning. “Mayors are really focusing their energies on supporting education because it has such implication for the broader city agenda.”

Their duties differ from place to place depending on the mayor’s priorities and local factors.

In Houston, Director of Education Juliet Stipeche became the first to fill that position in 2016. She has concentrated on growing a summer jobs program for youth and assisting schools and families after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.

She spent her first two years “meeting everyone under the sun” — from school and university leaders to nonprofits.

“I was just trying to get a feel for who is out there in the community that we can leverage their expertise,” said Stipeche, an attorney and previous Houston school board president.

In Kansas City, Mo., Julie Holland has tried to untangle “hairy issues” — such as the city’s role in getting children to read proficiently by third grade — after she was named the first education adviser in 2013. (Since school attendance is a factor in reading ability, the city worked with the health department to track data and is looking at the link between evictions and student mobility.)

And in St. Petersburg, Fla., Director of Education Leah McRae stepped into her role in 2015 with the task of working with school districts and others to strengthen “cradle-to-career” offerings. In the years just before, she said nobody in the mayor’s office was solely focused on that.

“It’s not necessarily a role that cities have played in educational policies … it did take some time to build relationships,” McRae said. “I will admit to you there was a lot of skepticism from the public school system that the city was trying to control what was happening in the schools.”

Up to 50 education officials typically attend the annual meeting of the Mayors’ Education Policy Advisors Network, which launched 15 years ago through the National League of Cities.

How much cities spend on educational aides and their departments depends on the size of the staff and breadth of their programs. Most education advisers who belong to the national network have small offices, with perhaps one other employee, Hutchinson said.

Holland said a private foundation pays part of her $85,000 salary. McRae makes $90,000 in St. Petersburg. Houston’s education office budget includes $105,444 for Stipeche’s salary plus about $40,000 in pay for an administrative assistant.

Whether or not a mayor’s education aide helps or hinders depends on the individual and the connections forged with superintendents, school boards and other education leaders, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

“If you find the person with the right personality and context they can be a real asset. They can build relationships. But lots of times, it’s just another hundred thousand dollars plus of taxpayer money,” he said.

One way to gauge whether an adviser will be a success is the amount of one-on-one time with the mayor. Nobody will think an adviser who is not in close contact actually speaks for the mayor.

“Creating more high-paying jobs for somebody … that’s the easy part,” Hess said. “There’s nothing bad about this besides from maybe wasting a bunch of tax dollars.”

In Atlanta, whoever becomes the first education chief will have to work with APS. School board chairman Jason Esteves welcomes that person's arrival.

APS has been “repeatedly assured” the position is to support, not take over, the school district, he said. He added that creating the position reflects the need for local governments to help provide social services amid state and federal cuts, he said.

“I think it’s a sign that the mayor is prioritizing public education and education generally and wants to see to it that someone in her administration has that priority in mind at all times,” Esteves said.