Opinion: A very public schoolyard spat at APS

The Atlanta Board of Education’s closed-door move to not renew Meria Carstarphen’s contract raises challenges for the district and its many at-risk students.
Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Meria J. Carstarphen, taking a selfie on the first day of school in August with fleet technician Alfonzo Roberson. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Meria J. Carstarphen, taking a selfie on the first day of school in August with fleet technician Alfonzo Roberson. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen has always moved with urgency, seeing setbacks not as a matter of losing time, but students. She swung hard at perceived obstacles to her goals for Atlanta’s children, whether a school board member or a mayor.

“They are my babies and my children, and I expect of myself to do a good job with or without the support of anyone else,” she once said.

Last week, the school board pulled its support of Carstarphen, declining to renew her contract and instead searching for a replacement to take over when her contract runs out in June. The board chair contends the working relationship between Carstarphen and several members became so fraught with tensions that going forward was not possible.

The board hoped that Carstarphen would accept the bad news with aplomb. She did not, announcing she wanted to stay and accusing the board of blindsiding her by giving her glowing evaluations as recently as June.

Many teachers and parents were stunned the board cast aside a leader who, in five years, guided Atlanta Public Schools out of crisis. A lack of board candor hasn’t helped; the reasons cited for the board conflicts with Carstarphen are a bland slurry of cliches about the need for a superintendent with different gifts.

So parents and teachers are left wondering. Was the non-renewal because Carstarphen merged half-empty schools? Or, was it her hiring of charter school operators and local nonprofits to help run struggling Atlanta schools and ward off the threat of state takeover? Was the board disheartened by the slow pace of improvement among its lowest-income children, a challenge that research suggests has more to do with Atlanta’s intergenerational poverty than its classroom practice.

The question is why the school board — which only supervises one employee, the superintendent — could not find a way to work with her for the sake of the district. APS knew Carstarphen’s history when it hired her away from Austin, where critics, while admiring her dedication and drive, also cited her autocratic style of management and her dismissive attitude.

The board has created instability, uncertainty and mistrust in a district already battered by an historic cheating scandal. Asking candidates to come to APS now and interview for Carstarphen’s job is akin to inviting guests to dinner while your house is on fire. “Please, sit down. Don’t mind the smoke alarm.”

The board has to douse these flames. That starts with reassuring teachers, many of whom loved a superintendent who suited up with high school football teams, played guitar for first-grade classes and gave employees her cell number to call with any concerns.

"She is the most passionate, fearless, and intelligent superintendent for whom I have worked," said Tracey Nance Pendley, Georgia's 2020 Teacher of the Year and the first Atlanta teacher to earn the honor in nearly 40 years. "Having worked under seven superintendents, I can say that Dr. Carstarphen is also by far the most visible superintendent, and the only one whom I've ever even seen in person. Dr. C. doesn't just talk the talk or tweet the tweet, she shows up — at schools, at games, at performances, at ceremonies, and, yes, at tough decisions, too."

>> ANOTHER VIEW | Opinion: APS board did what members felt was right

Is it likely APS can find someone with Carstarphen’s work ethic, but who will play nicer with the nine-member school board? And will that candidate be willing to continue on the path that Carstarphen blazed, as the board indicates it wants?

“A new superintendent rarely finishes the job that is underway,” said Mark Musick, former president of the Southern Regional Education Board. “A new ‘canvas’ is unveiled — a mostly empty canvas — on which the new superintendent paints in bold, if not detailed, strokes that produce rapture, if only temporarily, in the eyes of the board members.”

Atlanta school board chair Jason Esteves expressed confidence APS will survive the firestorm of public disapproval and find a superintendent to propel the schools forward, especially given the improvement and stability the district has already experienced.

“We are not looking for someone to fill her shoes. It is a different place; they will have to bring their own shoes,” he said.

It doesn’t matter if they bring Shaq O’Neal’s shoes. Managing APS and a school board are not easy jobs.

Upon her arrival here in 2014, Carstarphen said, “We have the lion’s share of every problem you can possibly imagine in urban public schools.” Shoring up classrooms would not be enough to alter the futures of Atlanta children, she said. The APS mission had to be more ambitious. “We have to end the cycle of poverty these families have been stuck in for a very long time. Everybody is going to have to bend, not for me and not for the board. You have to bend for these kids and fix the things that are wrong in their lives.”

The interplay between a school board and a superintendent should not endanger the performance of students, teachers or the system. It could now in Atlanta.

“We all understand the risks for the city,” Esteves said. “All the board members who have kids in the system right now have something at stake, not just as leaders but as residents. Given the divide on the board, the consensus was that to continue the progress we were making, we needed to do that with a new leader.”

Carstarphen said she walked into “a school system focused on adults and not on driving improvements for children.” It’s difficult to discern the benefit to children in the school board’s decision to hire a new leader in the middle of ongoing reforms. Board members and their proxies have been castigating Carstarphen as combative and authoritarian, which may well be true. But they seemingly have absolved themselves of any responsibility for the discord.

Maureen Downey, for the Editorial Board.