Demands on urban school chiefs keep tenures short

Carstarphen future at APS uncertain
Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen delivers her 2018 State of the District address in a non-traditional way while dancing and performing with students during the annual State of the District event at the Walden Sports Complex on Friday, October 5, 2018. AJC file photo HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen delivers her 2018 State of the District address in a non-traditional way while dancing and performing with students during the annual State of the District event at the Walden Sports Complex on Friday, October 5, 2018. AJC file photo HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

In the high-pressure, turnover-prone world of school superintendents, it’s common for leaders to last only a handful of years.

The future for Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, hired in 2014, is unclear as she approaches the average tenure of a big-district superintendent — about six years, according to one study. Other research suggests superintendents may not last even that long.

The school board hasn’t extended Carstarphen’s contract, which expires June 30. It has typically renewed her contract a year or more in advance, but has been silent so far about its plans for her.

If the end of her APS term is nigh, it may surprise and upset her supporters — who have lobbied the board to renew her contract — but it would fall in line with a typical tenure for a leader of a big system.

Numerous factors contribute to why superintendents leave. For starters: Board politics, burnout and juggling the demands of parents, teachers, taxpayers, business leaders and special-interest groups.

“The job of being superintendent of a large, urban school district is one of the most important jobs, and it’s also one of the most difficult,” said Becca Bracy Knight, executive director of the Broad Center, which supports school leaders. “As a superintendent you are accountable to a really wide variety of stakeholders and groups that are interested in what happens, and often all of those people have different opinions and thoughts about what success looks like and how to get there.”

The average superintendent of a large school district stays about 6.16 years, according to a report last year by the center. It looked at superintendents who had completed their tenures at the country's 100 biggest districts during a 15-year period starting in 2003.

The average tenure is even shorter in urban districts and districts with a higher percentage of low-income students and students of color. Experts said financial pressures, difficulty retaining employees and a daily barrage of issues can make those jobs especially difficult.

Metro Atlanta districts experienced turnover at the top. Fulton County Schools recently hired its fourth superintendent, not including interims, since spring 2008. DeKalb County School District Superintendent Steve Green, hired the year after Carstarphen, will leave his post at the end of this school year.

The role of the school board — who hires and fires a superintendent — is critical. When researchers asked school boards how effective they were and how well the board got along, they found the answers connected to how long a superintendent stuck around.

“Where the board rated its own functioning lower, the superintendent was much less likely to be there three years later,” said Jason Grissom, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University. Grissom said superintendents generally hold onto a job for three to four years.

Carstarphen's tenure has been marked by challenges — from dealing with the aftermath of the district-wide cheating scandal to trying to improve troubled schools and battling the City of Atlanta over taxes and development projects.

The superintendent walked into a school district still on fire, said Courtney English, who served as chairman of the board that hired her.

The cheating scandal had broken public trust. The culture inside APS, marked by threats of retaliation and intimidation, needed an overhaul. English said the board looked for a superintendent who could inspire employees, listen to others and turn around chronically under-performing schools.

“It was a huge task,” said English.

He's among more than 20 community and business leaders, led by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who asked the school board to extend Carstarphen's contract.

The district has raised teacher salaries, spent millions to provide academic help to cheated students, rewrote the APS mission and vision statements, and adopted a new operating model that gave schools more freedom from central office mandates, English said.

“Anybody who expects a generational problem … to be fixed in five years needs to seriously reassess the facts,” he said. “It’s not the time to take our foot off the gas.”

Carstarphen oversees the district’s 6,331 staff members, 91 schools and programs, and roughly $860 million general fund budget.

Her recommendations have included the controversial turnaround strategy that seeks to improve the lowest-performing schools. Carstarphen’s plan, approved unanimously by the board in 2016, resulted in school closures and mergers and the hiring of charter school groups to run a handful of schools.

A research firm the district hired to examine the results so far found some math gains but scant other evidence that certain strategies were helping students. Another study showed the effort to aid students who were victims of the cheating scandal hasn't boosted their grades or attendance.

Critics have opposed some of her efforts. The move to turn over six schools to outside operators upset some. The Georgia Federation of Teachers decried it as a push toward “privatization.” In a protest last month, the group called for Carstarphen to be fired and for board chairman Jason Esteves to resign.

Carstarphen has said it takes time to turn around schools. She’s acknowledged the district has more work to do to narrow the academic gap between white and black students.

She has embraced the superintendent's role as the public face of APS. Her annual State of the District address is known for theatricality. Last October, Carstarphen took to an outdoor stage in a fringed and studded jacket as students danced and sang about standardized test scores. "I have the blues about our achievement gap and the inequities in our city," Carstarphen told a cheering, concert-like audience.

In a written statement Wednesday, Carstarphen said she remains “devoted, energized and committed” to her work to create “a more stable, higher achieving district for all children.

"We have seen rising graduation and proficiency rates, balanced budgets and the successful implementation of a five-year strategic plan that continues to produce better outcomes for our students so they can have choice-filled lives. We still have a long way to go, and I think it's time to finish our commitment to our children and Atlanta's future together," she said.

Signs displayed during an August 2019 protest call for the removal of Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and school board Chairman Jason Esteves. The protest was organized by the Georgia Federation of Teachers. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC

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Three board members who voted against renewing Carstarphen's contract in 2018 have been quiet so far. They previously cited a mix of concerns about her leadership and stressed the need for APS to be more accountable for finances and students' academic progress.

While a stream of community leaders asked the school board during its Tuesday meeting to renew Carstarphen’s contract, a few people warned the board to not be swayed by politicians. Instead, they urged the board to examine the facts and make a decision based on what will lead to better academic outcomes for students.

Esteves, who has not said when the board could make or announce its decision about the superintendent’s future, told the audience he’s “proud of the progress” APS has made.

“This board will always have the best interest of our students in mind in making these decisions,” he said.

About 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