Carstarphen email claims board making ‘hostile work environment’

The Atlanta school board chairman Jason Esteves, left, and Superintendent Meria Carstarphen listen to public comment during a special meeting on Sept. 9, 2019, to discuss whether to extend Carstarphen’s contract. PHIL SKINNER
The Atlanta school board chairman Jason Esteves, left, and Superintendent Meria Carstarphen listen to public comment during a special meeting on Sept. 9, 2019, to discuss whether to extend Carstarphen’s contract. PHIL SKINNER

The Atlanta school superintendent has alleged board members violated policy and created a “hostile work environment” in the wake of their decision not to extend her contract.

Emails obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution via an open-records request show mounting tension between Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and the school board since the board's Sept. 9 announcement that it would search for a new leader.

Carstarphen’s contract expires June 30. Before the board’s announcement, she said repeatedly that she wanted to continue to lead Atlanta Public Schools.

VIDEO: Previous coverage of this story

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Meria Carstarphen admits she was surprised to learn the board wasn't not going to renew her contract.

Emails exchanged in the days after the announcement reveal strained relationships behind the scenes.

Carstarphen emailed board Chairman Jason Esteves on Sept. 11 to express concerns about two board members attending a press event she held at the district’s headquarters earlier that day.

“Does this now mean that board members can just show up anytime during my work day to observe, micromanage and monitor me (which they did), take notes (which they did) and report publicly (which they did) without any regard to my contract, evaluation process, board policy or employment rights?” Carstarphen wrote. “It is creating a hostile work environment and adding additional stress while I am responsible for focusing on my duties and commitment to kids.”

Esteves responded that “elected board members are well within their rights to attend any public meeting related to the district,” especially those that take place “in our board room.”

“We wholeheartedly reject the notion that their attendance was either ‘harassment’ or ‘hostile.’ Emails like the one below only continue to incite division that can cause harm to the system,” Esteves wrote.

Despite the email friction, both Carstarphen and Esteves said they will continue to work together.

Carstarphen issued a written statement saying she is "committed to working with the board in the best interest of our students and staff as we have shown through successful collaboration in board meetings and retreats, graduating more students ready for college and career, and most recently through our collaborative strategic planning sessions.

“As noted in my email, there were previous issues related to my working environment with some Board members that I raised with the chair. I remain focused on ensuring another great year for Atlanta Public Schools.”

Esteves declined to answer questions about the email exchange, but told the AJC he’s “confident that we’ll continue to be able to work together.”

In his email, he said the superintendent’s contract situation could have been resolved “amicably” months ago, but that she has “engaged in the type of public campaign that would not have been tolerated by you if it had been done by any other district employee.”

He added: “This effort is counterproductive to the efficient and effective function of the district.”

He also wrote that the superintendent’s “multiple media appearances to primarily discuss your contract … is taking significant time away from execution of your responsibilities to the district.”

Carstarphen sent the email expressing her concerns shortly after board members Michelle Olympiadis and Cynthia Briscoe Brown attended the superintendent’s media roundtable on Sept. 11. Carstarphen holds such events several times a year to update reporters on district news and activities. Olympiadis and Briscoe Brown were among the five board members who did not support extending Carstarphen’s contract.

Esteves said some board members watched the event online and others attended in person because it was “newsworthy and relevant to the school system.”

The APS communications office announced the media event on the day the board said it would not extend Carstarphen’s contract. Carstarphen opened the discussion by talking about the development of a strategic plan and a plan for APS facilities, an award ceremony to recognize employees and details about the upcoming State of the District address.

She then took questions from reporters, who asked about the contract situation and leadership transition.

In her email, Carstarphen told Esteves that Olympiadis and Briscoe Brown joined what was a “scheduled administrative meeting without any notification.” She wrote that the board members “then conducted their own press conference to speak on the contract extension,” and one “apparently started using language with the media such as ‘firing for cause,’ ‘neglect’ and other terms.”

Esteves responded that those terms were used in response to reporters’ questions and that the board member “was actually defending you by clarifying that you WERE NOT fired for cause (because you have not been fired) and there was no claim of neglect.”

Olympiadis and Briscoe Brown declined to comment to the AJC. Esteves wrote that the two board members sat in the back of the room and later answered reporters’ follow-up questions.

Carstarphen also highlighted portions of the board policy that state the board “will speak with one voice” and wrote that “it looks like numerous board members are violating the policy.”

“I am insisting on strict compliance with my employment contract and board policies as I have the obligation to perform as the superintendent until June 2020,” she wrote.

Esteves responded that he “cannot limit the free speech of elected board members, especially when they are being asked, in most instances, to respond to your comments about their own positions on your contract extension.”

ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS: Read the emails between Esteves and Carstarphen

Story so far

The Atlanta school board announced Sept. 9 that it would not renew Superintendent Meria Carstarphen’s contract when it expires June 30. Interviews with individual board members revealed five board members opposed an extension and three supported it. The board has begun a search for a new chief, with the goal of having a new superintendent on the job by July 1.