Carstarphen out; divided Atlanta school board doesn’t detail split

In a crucial decision with little public explanation, the Atlanta school board has chosen not to renew Superintendent Meria Carstarphen’s contract.

The board delivered the news Monday after more than three hours in a closed session. When they returned, Chairman Jason Esteves said a majority of the board did not support extending Carstarphen's contract. The announcement ended weeks of speculation and dashed hopes from some high-profile community leaders who had urged the board to retain Carstarphen.

Esteves declined to say which and how many board members opposed a contract renewal. Allowing her contract to expire does not require a public vote, officials said.

The lack of transparency angered some parents in the audience, who told the board that the move threatened public trust.

Esteves read from a prepared statement that did not provide specifics about what motivated the move.

“The board acknowledges there will be some disagreement related to this decision, but we believe it is important for the good of the entire system to move forward now,” the statement said.

Carstarphen was hired in 2014. Her contract expires June 30, and Esteves said he hopes she will remain at Atlanta Public Schools until then. Carstarphen left the board room before the elected officials came back and announced the decision.

She later sent a message to colleagues saying she has “always done what I believed to be right.”

“The disparity in educational outcomes for Atlanta’s children has been inter-generational and systemic. The solutions are not easy, which is why I so passionately wanted to stay and finish the job I was hired to do,” she wrote.

An APS spokesman referred questions to the board.

Esteves said the board would begin a search for the next superintendent immediately.

After the meeting, Esteves said he was among the majority who did not support extending her contract. The district’s five-year strategic plan ends in June, and the district is currently developing a new one.

“Given the deep divisions both amongst board members and in the community, I think it is time to move on,” he said. “We need a … superintendent in place in time to implement that strategic plan and to see it through over the next five years.”

Atlanta is the third big metro Atlanta district to deal with leadership changes in the last year. Fulton County Schools recently hired a new superintendent after its previous leader resigned in November. The DeKalb County School District superintendent, hired the year after Carstarphen, is set to leave his post at the end of this school year.

A somewhat clearer picture of the APS decision emerged after the meeting through Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviews with individual board members.

In addition to Esteves, Cynthia Briscoe Brown, Leslie Grant, and Michelle Olympiadis said they opposed extending the superintendent’s contract. Erika Mitchell, who along with Olympiadis and Grant voted against Carstarphen’s last contract renewal, could not be reached for comment.

Eshé Collins, Kandis Wood Jackson and Nancy Meister said they supported Carstarphen.

“It’s a very sad day for the kids in the City of Atlanta. She’s done nothing but make strides,” Meister said.

Collins said she wanted to retain stable leadership and thought the decision to pick a new superintendent should go to the next board. All nine seats on the board are up for election in 2021. The board is currently down to eight members until a special election this fall fills a District 2 vacancy.

Collins described the board as “deeply divided” over the superintendent’s future. She said there are issues the district needs to address — such as greater collaboration and closing academic gaps — but said she didn’t think those concerns were reason to switch leaders.

Both Esteves and Briscoe Brown supported Carstarphen during the last contract talks in 2018, and their change of heart appears to have been crucial to the final outcome.

Briscoe Brown said she has been thinking about transition issues and a succession plan for more than a year.

“We’ve made great progress over the last five years, but we’ve got lots more work to do to ensure that every child gets what they need to succeed,” she said. “APS is in a different place now than they were in 2014, and I believe that we need a different skill set in our superintendent going forward.”

When Carstarphen was hired, the school district was recovering from a district-wide cheating scandal. The district was in crisis, and in the five years since leaders tackled a lot of problems.

But the work that remains will be “much more tedious” and in some ways more difficult to show quick results, Briscoe Brown said.

“She has been a spectacular firefighter, I think the work going forward will be more like mud than fire,” she said.

Grant also cited a need “to bring in long-term leadership.” Olympiadis echoed the same concerns that led her to vote against the contract extension last year. In a written statement, she said the district’s financial responsibility and student academic outcomes “have been marginalized.”

Esteves said the board notified Carstarphen in July that there was not support for a contract renewal, but he said leaders agreed to wait until now to announce it publicly so as not to disrupt the start of school. The board, at the recommendation of the district's attorneys, has been working with a public relations company to handle communications about the decision.

Several parents blasted the board for how it made the decision.

“I would like to know where each member stood on the decision of whether or not to renew her. They ought to take a public stance and tell the public how they voted on the non-vote, and why they did not support the extension of her contract,” said John Hutchins, a North Atlanta High School parent.

A variety of challenges bubbled up during Carstarphen’s tenure, during which graduation rates went up and principal turnover decreased. Her recommendation to hand over daily operations of six low-performing schools to charter-school operators outraged the Atlanta Federation of Teachers. The group’s president praised the board’s decision to seek a new superintendent.

Carstarphen also tangled repeatedly with the City of Atlanta as she tried to get control of deeds to school properties held by the city and sought to limit the use of school property taxes to spur development projects.

In a written statement Monday, a spokesman for Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said: “The city thanks Dr. Carstarphen for her effort and wishes her the best in her future endeavors.”

Atlanta school superintendent Meria Carstarphen

Hired by Atlanta Public Schools: 2014

Contract expires: June 30, 2020

Salary: $397,953 plus a travel and expense allowance of $2,000 per month*

Hometown: Selma, Ala.

Past experience: Superintendent of Austin Independent School District and Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota.

Education: Doctorate from Harvard University, master’s degrees from Auburn University and Harvard University, and bachelor of arts in political science and Spanish from Tulane University

*as of May 2019

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.

Our reporting

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has covered Meria Carstarphen since her hiring in 2014, as she oversaw the closing of some schools and turned management of some over to charter groups, sparred with the city over property deeds and advocated changes in the way development incentives affect school tax revenue. We reported on the successes and shortcomings of her plan to turn around low-performing schools, revealed that the school board was divided on whether she should remain in charge and asked school board members why.