Austin Independent School District trustees discussed the future of Superintendent Meria Carstarphen at the Dec. 9 board meeting. However, the talk was all behind closed doors, and the public will have to wait until the Dec. 16 meeting to find out her future.
Historically, the board has completed the superintendent's evaluation by the end of September. Yet this time, the decision has been delayed almost three months. The publicly stated reason – given by board president Vince Torres and reiterated this week by AISD's Executive Director of Communications and Community Engagement Alex Sánchez – was that Trustee Tamala Barksdale was ill, and Torres wanted to ensure that all trustees were engaged in the discussion. However, normally the heavy lifting in the evaluation is done over the summer – before Barksdale was ill. Moreover, Barksdale has been back at board meetings since Oct. 21.
Carstarphen was originally hired in 2009 on a four-year contract, set to expire in 2013. However, the board voted to extend it by one year in both 2011 and 2012, meaning Carstarphen is safe in her job until 2015. That means more job security than any other AISD staff member, who are all on one-year contracts. Education Austin President Ken Zarifis understood the delay due to Barksdale's health but added "there's more to it than that."
It's no secret that the board is split over Carstarphen. The 2012 elections were seen in part as a referendum on her continued tenure, and on a board that many saw as rubber-stamping her policies. The result was a major turnover in seats, and a board that has been more critical of the district CEO. Now Carstarphen faces a board that is split down the middle, with Trustee Amber Elenz seen as the swing vote. Zarifis said, "We're at a turning point in this district, and there has to be a clear direction from this board"
For Greater Austin Area Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Education and Talent Development Drew Scheberle, the real concern goes beyond just one employee. The second part of the evaluation gives the superintendent instruction on the district's goals for the academic year: The three-month delay means the district has been functionally rudderless for a whole semester. Scheberle is also concerned that the behind-the-scenes tensions may scupper the district's plans to ask voters for a tax increase next year. He said, "I don't think there's any question that you've got a deeply divided board about management, but for AISD to get itself out of its budget hole, they've got to work together."
The board is already under pressure to terminate Carstarphen's contract. On Dec. 9, Saldaña Public Relations principal Paul Saldaña – often seen as point man for the Hispanic business community – posted an editorial on the website of local think tank Hispanic Advocates Business Leaders of Austin (HABLA). He harshly criticized Carstarphen's track record, under a headline that made his intentions clear: "It's time for a new AISD superintendent."
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