AISD: A Chat With the New Super

Incoming AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen
Incoming AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

In June, the Austin Independent School District gets its new leader when Meria Carstarphen leaves her current post, as superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota, and moves into her new digs on Austin's West Sixth Street.

While Carstarphen talks about the Austin position as a dream job, this is a nightmare year to be a new superintendent. First up is building the next budget, this year a traumatic process for every government agency. Keeping up with current numbers will be tough enough, but Carstarphen will face her own indirect budget cut: The $628 million budget for 38,000 students in St. Paul becomes $972 million for 82,000 AISD students, meaning her per-student cash drops by almost a third just because she's switching ZIP codes. She has convinced the board of trustees to extend Interim Chief Financial Officer Steve West's contract through Aug­ust, when the budget should be completed, and she's had multiple meetings with West and Forgione "to ensure I have a lot of the background on how budgets are done in Texas, because every state is different and every board has its own policy."

Then there's the pressing issue of schools the state writes off as "academically unacceptable." With Reagan High School and Pearce Middle School both potentially facing mandatory restructuring, Carstarphen has seen the rescue plans for both and has met the state's performance management teams "to get their perspective on how things are developing." Minnesota doesn't have mandatory school repurposing ("Texas is alone" in that statute, she said), and while she is unconvinced about the mandatory part, that doesn't mean she opposes intervention. She's currently overseeing restructuring and redesign at four St. Paul schools and argues that districts must take the lead and dig deep for meaningful reform, rather than hitting statutory minimums. She explained: "We don't just look at state data. We look at all of the climate and qualitative and quantitative information we can pull from a school."

One option that's off the table for Carstar­phen is alternative learning centers – schools ostensibly designed for students with various disciplinary problems. "I think they warehouse kids," she explained bluntly. "I get it. You bring a gun to school; that's a different story, but ... we don't want to keep putting kids out of the school process."

Detailed long-term plans are on hold until the Legislature finishes with its proposed school accountability and finance reforms, and there's also a districtwide efficiency study from consultants MGT of America Inc. on the way. But her approach to education is in place. "I'm a traditionalist," she said. "I'm here to teach, no matter what your issues are – we would be really good at our jobs if your [student] experience with us for 13 years from pre-K to 12 makes you a slam dunk for college, makes you a slam dunk for graduating, makes you a slam dunk employee."

How long is long term, in her case? Forgione lasted 10 years; the average urban superintendent lasts four to five, and there's a quiet rumbling among some local stakeholders that Austin will become just a stepping stone in Carstarphen's meteoric rise through the education ranks. Not an issue, she says: "No superintendent worth their salt starts in a district thinking, 'Where can I move next?' They want to stay; they want to see their reforms come through." But she also knows that she can only stay as long as she has the board's trust. Her initial contract is for four years, and she feels a superintendent "is really stretching their time past six years." As a self-professed data geek, she said: "I should be held accountable for every day I'm in this job. There should be outcomes, and I want that for my community."

Not that being an urban superintendent precludes someone from being a figure on the national stage. In conversation, Carstar­phen regularly name-checks Beverly Hall, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools. Across a decade of aggressive reform, Hall has become a leading educational thinker and national policy innovator. But Hall has sometimes been accused of being confrontational, and Carstarphen admits her own managerial style can lead to some egg-breaking for omelet-making. "I need a board to set the vision, give me goal statements, tell me where they want us to be. ... A community needs to work with both the board and the superintendent/administration to create the plan for what we're going to do." The trade-off is that, once the direction is set, the district has to let the super be the super. She explained: "I can get you a strategic plan in a month. I can get you [a deficit solution]. I can get it to you in a day. If you want to be engaged, let's talk about that – what does that look like, what does that feel like, when do we call the question, how much time – and that's something we're going to have to negotiate."

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