After Carstarphen, What Then?
AISD enters a new era, searching for a road map
Low-performing schools. A dismal graduation rate and depressing dropout numbers. A headline-grabbing investigation into test-fixing that sees former Superintendent Beverly Hall currently up on racketeering charges. Not many people would describe "superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools" as a dream job, but on April 14, Atlanta's board of trustees voted unanimously to hire Austin Independent School District Superintendent Meria Carstarphen as their new CEO. The next day, AISD's board selected Paul Cruz (see "It's Cruz Control – For Now") as her interim replacement, and started shopping around for a headhunter to find a permanent hire.
It's a momentous time for both communities. Atlanta's hope is that Carstarphen can help wipe away a horrific history of underachievement and scandal. For the residents of Austin, it's an opportunity to end an often contentious and fraught relationship with a superintendent who critics say never understood or cared for the public mood.
It's rare that Carstarphen's loyalists and opponents generally agree on anything. But this time, they all seem to endorse the idea that the best thing is for her to leave Austin. Speaking diplomatically, AISD Trustee Gina Hinojosa suggested that Georgia may just be a better fit for her at this time. She said, "The problems that Atlanta is facing, and the environment she is walking into, could be potentially ideal for somebody with her philosophy towards education and reform."
That's the polite way of saying that Carstarphen's position in Austin was untenable.
Hinojosa joined the board in the anti-Carstarphen electoral wave of 2012, and since then has demanded that the superintendent be more responsive and accountable to board policy. That's been welcome relief to fellow trustee Robert Schneider, who's had an often-combative relationship with Carstarphen, going back almost to her hiring in 2009. "It's no secret that we didn't get along on a number of issues," he said. "She had a certain style of working with folks, and it was a style I did not appreciate or encourage in any way." However, he echoed Hinojosa's belief that Atlanta may just be a better fit for Carstarphen, and said, "If they're really a reform-minded board, and she really wants to continue doing some of the reforms she wanted to do, that may be a good slot for her to be in right now."
With hindsight, he sees the superintendent's last annual board appraisal as the breaking point in her relationship with AISD trustees. It had been delayed for months because of divisions among board members. Her supporters didn't want to produce a critical review, but there were serious discussions among some others about terminating her contract with due cause – her dismissive attitude to trustees, withholding information, forcing trustees to submit open records requests to their own district, and generally causing serious angst in the board offices. Finally, in December, the board gave her a tepid review, and declined to extend her current deal (set to expire at the end of the 2014-2015 school year). It was received publicly as a mild reprimand, but like the 2012 election, it became a no-confidence vote in her leadership. Schneider said, "In retrospect, some of the things that were said in the evaluation process, I think she was more concerned than I realized."
However, Schneider said he was still a little surprised that she decided to quit so abruptly – he only found out about her decision when she called him an hour before Atlanta made the announcement that she was their sole finalist. While he had expected her to at least finish out that remaining year and a half on her contract, he said, "If she knows that she's going to be around for another year or two years, she'll stick around, but if she thinks there's no confidence in the board, she's going to move on to what she wants to try and do next."
Not everyone is glad to see Carstarphen go. District 6 Trustee Lori Moya, one of her most consistent supporters, said, "I think it's sad for Austin to lose such a dynamic and committed leader for the district. I know that there are folks who were not big supporters of her, but I still think that she has done a lot of good work while she was here." For Moya, her success was not so much one single project, but in tackling "latent discrimination and latent racism, issues that are difficult for us to face because we think we're such a progressive community. In some ways we are, and in other ways, we're not. ... I really appreciate that she didn't let us as a community get away with keeping our heads in the sand."
There's little doubt that Carstarphen has shaken up the district in the last five years, spearheading in-district charter schools and adding two more single-sex academies. "I can implement anything," she said during a recent visit to Atlanta's Hope-Hill Elementary, before adding, "Be careful what you ask for, because it will be done." Her bigger problem in Austin has been doing things nobody really seemed to be asking for – or, as Moya put it, "She tried to do a whole lot more than our community was ready for and could absorb."
Cases in point: handing Allan Elementary over to IDEA Public Schools. That fight became a rallying point for new progressive groups, like Pride of the Eastside and Occupy AISD. Vincent Tovar, Pride's co-founder and spokesman, was less diplomatic than Schneider, and far from surprised about Carstarphen's departure. He said, "Her exit was the most talked about private topic, and the least talked about public topic, that everybody had on their minds." Like Schneider, Tovar's issue with Carstarphen was less about one specific policy, and far more about her authoritarian, often autocratic style of management, and her dismissive attitude toward critics. "People were tired of encountering her like a brick wall," he said. "Her legacy is, 'best practice doesn't matter, data doesn't matter, research doesn't matter, my opinion is what matters.'" He also saw her as willfully alienating stakeholders and employees by dumping responsibility for districtwide problems on them, rather than working with them to fix those issues. For example, he said, blaming teachers and communities for decreasing enrollment "doesn't solve the problem of recapturing those families, but pushes teachers and school staff to leave as well."
Arguably Carstarphen's most pointed public critic, Tovar still had some praise for her, especially in contrast to her predecessor. "I never heard, 'Oh, I miss the days of [Pat] Forgione,'" he said, "and her being the first female and the first African-American superintendent was great to show the value we place on our differences and our background." However, he pointedly rejected the idea that Carstarphen left because she got one bad report card from trustees. Instead, he called it a clear reflection of the public will that changed the board. He said, "Was it just these five people speaking, or the tens of thousands of people voting to move the district in this progressive way?"
Tovar's experience is representative of the district residents who became more politically engaged and organized because of their concerns about Carstarphen. However, one of the major institutional faces of the anti-Carstarphen movement was long-time public relations and political consultant Paul Saldaña. As a private citizen with the ear of the board, he was one of the first public figures to call for Carstarphen's removal or resignation. Now he's considering a run against Moya, and so could well be part of the board that governs the post-Carstarphen era. He said, "I wish her well, but I firmly believe that our community, our kids, and our schools will be better served under the leadership of another superintendent." Like Schneider, Saldaña never believed that she was a good fit for AISD: "When she arrived she was totally unprepared for the local community values, and the expectations about the decision-making process. Here in Austin, there is an expectation that the citizenry will be involved, and be allowed to have meaningful participation into policies." That's not what happened under Carstarphen, and Saldaña blames her closed leadership style for the results. "The facility master plan was just a disaster, and all of the issues with District 2 and Allan Elementary and IDEA, that whole debacle was a total mess."
The Hispanic Future
In part, Carstarphen was sold to the community as someone who could heal the sometimes antagonistic relationships between Hispanic and African-American political movers-and-shakers in Austin. She was a self-proclaimed "daughter of the Deep South" who had taught elementary Spanish in Spain and Venezuela. What actually ensued was years of Hispanic activists wondering why they almost never heard a word of Spanish pass her lips in public. Before her hiring in 2009, the Austin American-Statesman said there was a movement "pressuring board members to select a Latino candidate." After an open records request at the time, Chronicle news editor Michael King found that campaign amounted to a grand total of two emails to the board (see "Point Austin," Feb. 27, 2009).
This time around, the calls will be louder and actually organized. Saldaña said he is working with a new group, including former Austin mayor and school board member Gus Garcia, to define desirable traits in the next district CEO, and the first criterion may be controversial: that the finalists should be Hispanic. Saldaña said, "It's one thing to be bilingual, but even more important is making sure the next superintendent understands the values of the Latino and Latina community." While he is quick to point out that the community is not a monolithic whole, he also noted that over half of AISD students are Hispanic. "What happens at the city affects what happens at the school district, and vice versa," he added. "It's absolutely critical to have a superintendent who can relate to that."
Prior to the Atlanta vote, Saldaña was one of the very few people prepared to continue their harsh public criticism of Carstarphen. Behind the scenes, her detractors played a very careful game of chess: They had no interest in polishing her résumé for her, but they didn't want to take any steps that might sour the deal with Atlanta. That change of course in Georgia seems highly unlikely. While the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran stories that added some back-history to Carstarphen's time in Austin, the community appears to be gung-ho on her hiring. She even got a nod from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who said in a statement that her "record as a superintendent speaks for itself. ... I admire Meria's deep belief in serving all students and holding herself accountable for their success."
Duncan went on to praise her record of "student achievement that outperformed many urban school systems across the country and graduation rates that set new highs for Austin." That's been her big selling point in Atlanta, where the current graduation rate is a dismal 59%. However, critics have repeatedly pointed out that those Austin increases have been in line with improvement statewide, and there are real questions about whether that's due to actual higher scores, or changes in the tests. Moreover, Saldaña noted, despite all the improvements, AISD remained "second to dead last in terms of major urban school districts for low-income students, when low-income students account for the majority of our students." He remains deeply troubled about how hard it has been to extract meaningful data out of the district, and about the endlessly optimistic press releases that came out of the often-troubled communications department. He said, "It was branding, all about Carstarphen. She had a PR machine behind her to basically filter and report on all the good things, and not necessarily focus on the areas that needed improvement."
Much as her supporters may try to deny it, Carstarphen has left a long shadow over district politics. The last trustee elections in 2012 became a vote of no confidence on her administration. Then in 2013 she was partially blamed for the failure of two of the four AISD bonds in November, due to a combination of unpopular projects like a districtwide boys' academy and general distrust of her administration. With Carstarphen gone, one political consultant said in confidentiality, "At least this time the election won't be about someone who isn't even on the ballot."
That's a change from the 2012 elections, where Carstarphen was the No. 1 issue for many voters. Education Austin and other groups critical of Carstarphen worked hard to support candidates like Hinojosa, District 3's Ann Teich, and Board Secretary Jayme Mathias. On the other side, Carstarphen supporters (including the newly-formed pro-education-reform PAC Austin Kids First) successfully backed Austin Council of PTAs President Amber Elenz to replace then-president Mark Williams in District 5 (see "We're All About the ... Kids!" Oct. 19, 2012). There are five seats on this year's ballot, but so far, other than Saldaña, there's little word about new faces. Rumors – but no names – float that there are a couple of potential candidates to replace retiring District 1 incumbent Cheryl Bradley, and that Schneider might face a challenger in his Southwest Austin seat. Moya said she's leaning towards running again, but has made no solid decision. Similarly, Board President Vincent Torres and At-Large Member Tamala Barksdale are still in the 'undecided' column – so that could mean as many as four open seats on the November ballot.
It's always been a struggle to recruit candidates for board seats. That's not surprising; sacrificing every Monday night for lengthy and often contentious meetings, plus endless school visits and executive sessions, plus piles of documents to peruse, and all for no pay, scarcely seems alluring. Yet the potential of being a member of the board that selects a new district leader could attract both activists and PAC money into the race. But ballot box issues aside, there's a real question of responsibility: Should the decision be left to a seasoned but lame-duck board, or potentially inexperienced trustees with more recent voter approval?
Torres has been lobbying for the incoming board to pick the new superintendent next year: After all, they'll be the ones to whom the new hire reports. Moreover, some candidates for the post may not apply if they have no clear idea what their board will look like to how it will lean politically. However, with much of the heavy lifting on the 2014 budget, facility master plan, and new strategic plan already under way, Hinojosa prefers hiring a permanent superintendent before the fall, and argues that "the timing actually works in our favor. Everything that needs to be done to start the new [school] year right has been done." She has already talked with the Texas Association of School Boards, and their out-of-the-box model for superintendent hiring can take as little as three months. (Hinojosa suggested that Austinites might want an extra month for meaningful consultation at the beginning and end of the process.) Similarly, while Moya noted that no decision has yet been made, she argues that the more seasoned current trustees should shoulder the effort, rather than leaving it to a freshman board. She said, "Putting those people in a challenging spot isn't fair."
That argument may be winning favor. Education Austin President Ken Zarifis, who will have to work with the new CEO, started off leaning towards a longer process, but is now edging towards Hinojosa's stance that the district needs new permanent leadership before summer ends. Either way, he warned, what's important is that the process be transparent and – unlike the 2009 hiring of Carstarphen – not end in a sole finalist being presented to the community as a fait accompli.
Schneider concurs with Hinojosa's thinking, arguing that a quicker decision "sends a signal that the board, when it wants to, can make positive decisions about how the district is run." He suggests that the board can have a new superintendent in place by August, giving everyone a month to acclimate before the beginning of the school year. Moreover, if trustees hold off on selecting a permanent replacement until 2015, he argues, the process – and who gets to run it – will become "one of the dominating themes of the election. ... If you do it sooner, it takes all those issues off the table."
But Tovar isn't so sure Carstarphen's influence can be wiped clean so quickly. Her political legacy in Austin is that she crystallized the battle lines between the self-proclaimed education reform movement (espousing high-stakes testing, charters, single-sex schools, and vouchers), and the nascent community schools movement. Even with Carstarphen gone, she will remain a totemic figure in that fight. Tovar said, "When the elections roll around, it'll be clear to say, 'This is the Carstarphen candidate, and this is the progressive candidate.' "