Private donors to fund Atlanta school leadership change


Meria Carstarphen was hired last month to become the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools starting July 7. She was previously the superintendent in Austin, Texas, and she’s already working in Atlanta under a transition agreement.

Transition costs: $500,000 (estimated). Expenses include Carstarphen's $1,180 daily pay until her official start date, compensation for experts to examine APS operations, legal advice and recruitment of school administrators.

Salary in Austin: $283,412

Salary in Atlanta: $375,000

Outgoing Superintendent Erroll Davis' salary: $258,837


Before she takes over as superintendent, Meria Carstarphen plans to conduct a deep evaluation of Atlanta Public Schools.

  • She'll work with Superintendent Erroll Davis to hire several principals before next school year. She'll consider ways to shore up the school system's $550 million unfunded pension liability. She'll review and potentially ask the school board to amend its $658 million budget for next school year.
  • Carstarphen said she wants to examine human resources, finance and student information systems. She'll seek legal advice about the city's special education programs.
  • She also said she'll assess testing accountability in the wake of Atlanta's cheating scandal to ensure data is properly managed.

Ushering in new leadership atop Atlanta Public Schools will cost $500,000 from unidentified outside donors, a plan that avoids spending taxpayer money but raises questions about business influence on public education.

Incoming Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and school board Chairman Courtney English say the arrangement will be ethical and transparent, giving Carstarphen a two-month head-start on solving the city school system’s problems before she takes charge July 7.

The school board unanimously approved the transition agreement last week.

While the transition cash is not yet in hand, English said he’s confident he’ll be able to raise the money from Atlanta business and philanthropic groups, although he didn’t name whom he would ask for contributions.

Carstarphen said she’ll immediately take on some of the school system’s most pressing challenges, such as hiring principals, rethinking the school system’s $658 million budget and finding a way to shore up a $550 million unfunded pension liability. She plans to spend transition money on recruiting administrators, hiring experts and upgrading accountability oversight to guard against standardized test cheating that a state investigation found took place in 44 schools in 2009.

“If I can get some of those big chunks of things done during the transition and not use taxpayer dollars to do it, that’s a good thing for Atlanta Public Schools,” said Carstarphen, who will be paid a daily rate of $1,180 during the transition. “It will help me shape strategies for how we can hit the ground running.”

It’s not unusual for newly hired superintendents to start working before they officially take leadership of school systems, said Jimmy Minichello, spokesman for AASA, The School Superintendents Association. He said using private money is less common but can reduce reliance on tax funds and lead to a smooth changeover.

“Not every superintendent has this kind of full-out transition, but a transition team and working some time before the contract start date are not uncommon — and makes sense,” Minichello said.

Contributions to fund the transition would be made to the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, which connects donors to organizations in the region. Money would then be paid to Carstarphen and her team upon approval of their expenses by the school board. By having the school board manage the cash, Carstarphen will be answerable to them and not to private interests, English said.

“It will be made crystal clear to anyone who contributes to this effort that there are no strings attached,” English said. “We’re going to do everything we can to put safeguards in place to ensure a level of independence. At the end of the day, judge us by the results we produce for children.”

But English acknowledged a key detail hasn’t been decided yet: whether the names of the donors will be made public. The Community Foundation will leave that call up to the school board, said its president, Alicia Philipp.

Hollie Manheimer, executive director for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said donors’ identities should be revealed to preserve the integrity of the process.

“While donor information in some narrow instances is sealed, in this case, there is a strong case for public disclosure. Given the recent history of the Atlanta school system, the public has an especially keen interest in its affairs,” she said.

The effort to bring private money into public education concerns Raynard Johnson, who ran for school board last year and works in software development. He said the business community ignored the school system’s cheating scandal, and renewed ties between the two would create an incentive to whitewash future problems.

An initial investigation of cheating, conducted by a Blue Ribbon Commission and backed by the Metro Atlanta Chamber, found that major testing irregularities were limited, but the later state investigation found in 2011 that much more widespread cheating had occurred.

“The history of outside influence on APS is checkered enough, and one small part of restoring faith in APS requires that school board members maintain their independence from external groups,” he said.

Johnson called on board members to take a pledge not to accept campaign contributions from donors who contribute to Carstarphen’s transition.

This isn’t the first time private contributions have been sought to supplement Atlanta Public Schools.

Mayor Kasim Reed said last year he wanted fundraising from the business community to increase the salary of Atlanta’s superintendent to $600,000, saying the school system leader should be recruited like the head football coach of the University of Georgia. The school board didn’t take Reed up on the offer and decided to pay Carstarphen a $375,000 base salary from public money.

Also last year, the school board turned down a proposal to have donors fund the $146,000 superintendent search process.

About $1 million in contributions raised through the Community Foundation went to Atlanta Public Schools’ effort last year to restructure its human resources functions, and the Community Foundation gave $40,000 for school board professional development sessions this year, English said.

The Community Foundation’s board members include representatives from Southern Co., law firm Alston & Bird, architecture company R L Brown & Associates, and Delta Air Lines. Ann Cramer of the fundraising consulting firm Coxe Curry & Associates also sits on the Community Foundation’s board, and she was chairwoman of the Superintendent Search Committee.