Growing conflicts with Atlanta school board doomed superintendent

On the first day of the 2018-2019 school year, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, center, posted for a selfie with board Chairman Jason Esteves and board member Cynthia Briscoe Brown. A year later, Esteves and Briscoe Brown were among the board members who decided not to extend Carstarphen’s contract. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Combined ShapeCaption
On the first day of the 2018-2019 school year, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, center, posted for a selfie with board Chairman Jason Esteves and board member Cynthia Briscoe Brown. A year later, Esteves and Briscoe Brown were among the board members who decided not to extend Carstarphen’s contract. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

The Atlanta school board's decision to seek a new superintendent sent shock waves through the city, but the relationship between the elected board and its employee, Meria Carstarphen, had been deteriorating for more than a year.

On Monday, the board emerged from a three-hour closed session to announce they would part ways when Carstarphen's contract expires June 30.

They did not vote, nor disclose where each member stood, except to say that a majority did not support a contract extension. Chairman Jason Esteves read a one-page statement with few details about the decision.

The announcement capped more than a year of privately escalating concerns, including recent weeks of hidden conflict as the board braced for the decision’s impact.

In interviews afterward with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, five of the eight board members said they opposed a contact extension, though some declined to explain their rationale in detail. They cited numerous reasons to stay tight-lipped, from an unwillingness to discuss personnel matters to legal issues, respect for Carstarphen and a fear that airing dirty laundry would deter superintendent candidates.

“We have done a very good job of keeping a lot of the stuff behind the scenes and not airing them out in public,” Esteves said. “I understand truly that people are frustrated and want to know more, but I am not in a position to really explain or try to explain the differences that board members had with the superintendent that developed over time.”

Carstarphen said she did not receive one collective reason for the board's decision. She said she was told it wasn't about her performance and her evaluations have been positive. She said facts and data contradict what individual board members have cited as reasons.

“I just know that I was called here to do this work, to do the best that I could, and to actually finish the job,” said Carstarphen, hired in 2014 to rebuild Atlanta Public Schools after a massive cheating scandal that garnered national headlines. “And in my opinion … that job isn’t done.”

During her tenure, the district has worked to restore trust and overhaul the APS culture after the cheating. It battled the city in high-profile fights over school property deeds and tax breaks for development projects like the downtown Gulch plan.

Results of Carstarphen's efforts to improve the most-troubled schools have been mixed. Graduation rates have gone up, but the academic gaps between white and black students remain wide.

Conflicts surfaced last year 

Esteves said board members’ positions have hardened since June 2018, when the first fissures were revealed. That’s when the board last agreed to extend Carstarphen’s contract. While two prior extensions had unanimous support, this time three of the nine board members voted against it. They cited reasons ranging from financial accountability to academic performance and charter school concerns. Two of those voting no had joined the board earlier that year.

Though she didn’t disclose it back then, a fourth member, Cynthia Briscoe Brown, said she considered voting against an extension in 2018. Ultimately, she said she decided it wasn’t the right time to change leaders. She said she refrained from talking about it publicly because she thought it was inappropriate to discuss personnel matters.

But over the next year, Briscoe Brown said she grew convinced that now is the time for APS to find someone with “different gifts.”

She said she likes Carstarphen and her decision was not because of any past performance problems. But the district is embarking on a new, five-year strategic plan, making it the right moment to find a leader with “different skills” to execute that plan.

Carstarphen said she asked Briscoe Brown explicitly: “Tell me what the skill set is that you’re looking for, and I will commit to learning it.” According to Carstarphen, Briscoe Brown replied: “I don’t know what that is yet.”

Briscoe Brown would not comment “on a private conversation” and declined to detail the specific skills she wants in the district’s next leader.

Publicly, good reviews

The months immediately before the announcement were especially strained.

In June, Esteves issued a glowing verbal report on Carstarphen’s yearly evaluation. While the the board has kept those reviews confidential, as the law allows, the chairman has offered short public updates.

This time, as in other reviews, the public verdict was positive. Carstarphen “continues to be the strong leader that the district needs,” Esteves said on June 3.

“Our preference has been to keep all that positive,” Esteves said. “Obviously, that’s come back to bite us.”

Esteves now says that the board needs to improve the way it handles those evaluations.

At least a couple of board members agree. Erika Mitchell, who opposed extending Carstarphen’s contract last year and this year, is one of them.

“Why would you go out and do that when you have some reservations about her leadership?” Mitchell said. “I feel like it was very misleading to the public, and it created a lot of chaos. Three months ago we were good and now we’re not?”

Mitchell said she opposed a contract renewal because she wants a superintendent whose top priority is improving low-performing schools and finding money to help struggling students.

She said schools in her west Atlanta district don’t have the same private financial support as schools in Atlanta’s more affluent north and east neighborhoods. She wants to work with the superintendent to grow donations to help schools in her district.

Carstarphen said she’s always focused on students and “We can prove that schools absolutely have improved.”

Public opinion efforts

In July, just weeks after the rosy review, board leaders said they notified Carstarphen that a majority did not support a contract extension. Esteves said she asked them to delay discussing a transition, so as not to overshadow the start of the school year.

In August, Esteves signed an agreement with a public relations company the district's law firm hired. Its assignment: help the board formulate a public response to the upcoming superintendent announcement.

Also that month, as speculation about the superintendent's future started to swirl, Esteves warned Carstarphen in an email to stop commenting on the contract question. He advised her that "encouraging and collaborating with community members, directly or indirectly to apply pressure on board members is inappropriate."

The week before the board's announcement, at the Sept. 3 meeting, U.S. Rep. John Lewis gave an impassioned four-minute speech urging the board to keep Carstarphen. Earlier, he had written a similar plea co-signed by more than 20 prominent figures including former Atlanta mayors Shirley Franklin and Andrew Young.

“Any of the people who have contacted our board are grown people with their own opinions about APS,” Carstarphen said. “People have a voice and they used it.”

Leading up to the board’s announcement, she said she thought the board was evenly split but believed she could still win a contract extension.

Chairman’s change

Among the board members Carstarphen counted as a backer was Esteves.

He supported the controversial turnaround plan that led to school closures, mergers and hiring charter school groups to run a handful of low-performing schools. He said he remains a fan of Carstarphen.

In 2017, when Esteves ran unopposed for re-election, Carstarphen donated $500 to his campaign, drawing criticism from a watchdog group. Esteves said he later returned the donation. At the start of his second term, the board picked Esteves as its chairman.

It was the board’s deepening stalemate over Carstarphen that ultimately led Esteves to believe the district needed to move on. He said the gridlock would hold the district back, and the dysfunction it created would reverberate through classrooms.

“It’s a very different board and the split was very different,” he said. “It was more dramatic than in the past and my judgment on that was that it was going to be more negative than positive if we continued it as is.”

The nine-seat board currently has only eight members because of a District 2 vacancy, which likely won’t be filled until after an Oct. 15 runoff election.

Esteves acknowledged the board could have waited until then, but he said doing so would hinder the search for a new leader, whom officials hope to hire by the start of the next school year. That angered District 2 voters, a couple of whom had signs at Monday’s meeting urging the board to wait until after their representative was seated.

The chairman said many of the candidates are on the record against a contract extension. After the election, even if a slim majority supported an extension, he said, the board would still be deeply divided.

Two other board members said they opposed a contract extension for some of the same reasons they had in 2018.

Among Michelle Olympiadis’ most pressing concerns are boosting student academic gains and the district’s ongoing financial stability. She sees financial pressure building, citing costs such as employee benefits and payments to charter schools and the outside operators hired to run some schools. The district already has a high property tax rate compared to many other districts, Olympiadis said.

APS needs more detailed financial projections going out multiple years, a task the administration needs to lead, she said.

Carstarphen said nobody has told her to change the budget, which she said is created collaboratively with the board. She said funding charter schools hasn’t penalized traditional schools because the district has worked to offset the cost by reducing central office expenses.

Olympiadis said there are still opportunities to downsize administrative costs.

Leslie Grant, another repeat no-voter, declined to detail her position beyond saying the district needs “to begin the process to bring in long-term leadership.”

Carstarphen said Grant has repeatedly declined to meet with her for monthly one-on-one meetings she schedules with board members. “I can only do as much as the board member wants to do,” Carstarphen said.

Grant said she’s asked for her briefing to be provided in writing and declined to comment further.

Personality conflict an issue?

Board members didn’t cite Carstarphen’s leadership style or personality as a reason to replace her. But Esteves acknowledged she can rub some the wrong way. He characterized her as passionate, direct and “not afraid to push back and have discussions.”

Said Carstarphen: “I think those are adjectives for a great leader. When I was hired and when I get my evaluations I am told that is what APS wants and needs.”

She said board members did not tell her that they didn’t like her leadership style or couldn’t work with her.

Former Gov. Roy Barnes, an attorney, has volunteered to represent Carstarphen to protect her interests and ensure all laws and contractual provisions are being followed.

Briscoe Brown said personality did not enter into her decision: “I think powerful, confident women in leadership can often rub others the wrong way.”

But some outside observers suspect that came into play.

The president of the 1,700-member Atlanta Federation of Teachers, Verdaillia Turner, said Carstarphen is “charming” so long as you didn’t upset her. Paul Saldaña, who said he butted heads with Carstarphen when she led schools in Austin, described her as “confrontational” and “combative.” He opposed some of her reform plans and later served on the Texas district’s school board after Carstarphen’s departure.

Can Atlanta find another superintendent to work with a divided board? One expert who conducts such searches believes it can.

“There’s going to be some chaos, there’s going to be some division on the board, that’s pretty typical in this day and time,” said E. Wayne Harris, who founded the School Leaders Institute at Virginia Tech. “There are candidates who are well equipped to come to Atlanta.”

Esteves acknowledges he does worry about attracting a top-tier candidate, and said the board understands the risk that comes with its decision.

“At the end of the day, the judgment of the board is that this is what’s best for the system and time will certainly tell,” he said.

Meria Carstarphen timeline

2014 – Hired as school superintendent.

2015 – APS becomes a "charter system," with five years of freedom from some state mandates. School board unanimously approves extending her contract until June 30, 2018.

2016 – Agreement ends dispute with city over Beltline funding; dispute with city over deeds to several properties continues. School turnaround plan approved that will turn several APS schools over to charter groups. New APS police force formed, replacing Atlanta Police Department officers in schools.

2017 – Board votes 7-0 to extend her contract to June 30, 2019.

2018 – Board votes 6-3 to extend her contract to June 30, 2020.

2019 – Board and city reach agreement in January on future school taxes for development incentives, clearing way for huge downtown Gulch project; Carstarphen says in April city hasn't paid $10 million promised in that deal.

Board tells her in July it will not renew her contract, publicly announces that decision in September.

About the Author