Imagine you are responsible for managing an employee. You tell that employee her time in the company is coming to an end and you would like to organize a thoughtful transition. You communicate a variety of reasons, but the chief one is the toxicity of the employee’s working relationship with half of your co-managers.
The employee asks that you hold the announcement until after an upcoming product launch. You agree and abide by your commitment. But as soon as she’s out of the room, the employee starts frantically requesting interviews at media outlets. She goes on the radio to say that you and your co-managers may come and go but if she stays the company will flourish. She works to build public leverage against the decision you communicated to her. She ignores the divisive results her doomed campaign will have on the company and makes this about her. You announce that you will be transitioning this employee from the company. That is more or less what I took away from the Atlanta school board’s decision not to extend Meria Carstarphen’s contract.
When I first learned there was a real possibility of letting the contract expire, I felt concerned about the uncertainty it would bring to the system. I still have those concerns, but I understand the board’s decision and hope that time will reveal it to be the right one.
Carstarphen deserves credit for her dedication to the work of leading APS. Even her most ardent critics would concede that the superintendent puts an incredible amount of energy into her work. She has been visible and built community pride. She also deserves credit for taking chances. There are few easy decisions in school-district leadership, and Carstarphen has tackled some of the toughest. She closed schools to fix enrollment problems. That’s the kind of decision that infuriates some people and excites no one. She moved the district toward school-level budgets. She brought in partners to manage six of the district’s worst-performing schools. Most of those partners have increased achievement.
But along the way Carstarphen has proven to sometimes be about the business of promoting Meria J. Carstarphen. She built and leveraged her public persona to push through a multimillion-dollar turnaround strategy. But actual implementation didn’t get the attention required. Turnaround students were supposed to get five times the tutoring they actually received. Some got none. After publicizing the need to do right by students who attended during the cheating scandal, the same bungled execution happened with that effort, Target 2021. When rigorous results of these initiatives came out, they were swept under the rug while she used her blog and press team to craft a narrative of dramatic successes.
Some of the narrative-building and ego-affirmation would be easier to overlook if not for what occurs when Carstarphen’s ego gets wounded. The result is not pretty. I need multiple hands to count the number of people who I have heard say “I’m so glad I don’t have to work with her anymore” after leaving the district.
I ignited Carstarphen’s anger early on by writing that her new slate of principal hires didn’t look transformational. After hearing from several parents in the principal selection process and looking into the issues they raised, I felt the crop of hires didn’t look as amazing as Carstarphen suggested. My suggestion was that APS consider hiring more leaders from top colleges. We now know that most of those principal hires didn’t work out and are no longer at the district. Only 29% of the hires coming from non-selective colleges were still principals by 2018, but 80% were still around from top colleges. The anger my opinion triggered from her showed there’s no room for dissent if Carstarphen’s ego is on the line.
I believe each board member is doing what they think is right. That said, I remain concerned about the prospect of hiring another leader right now. I worry board members have divergent views on where to head, complicating a superintendent search. I hope that a candidate will come forward who can continue the positive elements of Carstarphen’s legacy with the relational stability she struggled to demonstrate.
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Dr. Jarod Apperson is an assistant professor of economics who has blogged about Atlanta Public Schools for seven years.