Carstarphen Report Card: B for Bland

AISD head receives lukewarm review

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen at an AISD board meeting in December 2012
Superintendent Meria Carstarphen at an AISD board meeting in December 2012 (Photo by John Anderson)

Seven months of soul searching, and it was all over in five minutes. On Dec. 16, Austin Independent School District board president Vince Torres ran through the long-overdue annual evaluation of Super­in­ten­dent Meria Carstarphen. The end result was thin gruel, with the blandest of blandishments for the district's CEO, but no overt criticism. Carstarphen's yearly review received a standing ovation from some of the crowd, but it's notable that the board did not offer to extend her contract again.

Normally, the annual evaluation begins before the summer recess and is over in September. This year, it was heavily delayed – partially due to board illnesses, but also because of a lack of consensus in the boardroom. Finally, a decision of sorts was reached. In a brief speech, Torres said that "Overall, the board is pleased with the progress made by the district under Dr. Car­star­phen's leadership during the past year." He praised her team for cutting some dropout rates and keeping the district's bond rating high, and praised her personally for rejecting a 3% pay raise for two years in a row.

However, there's a dirty little secret to superintendent evaluations in Texas. No matter how vitriolic the backroom fights, in public, boards will only accentuate the positive and try to ignore any negatives. So, for example, Torres praised Carstarphen for achievements in two of the five district priorities – cultivating a "whole child, every child" policy rather than teaching to the test, and creating a college-ready culture. However, he was quieter on the other three tenets. Moreover, the report glossed over the catastrophic failure of two of the district's bond measures – especially that of Prop. 4, which went down in no small part due to the inclusion of funding for a boys' academy at Carstarphen's behest.

Most tellingly, the board did not grant Carstarphen a contract extension. In 2011 and 2012, she was given one-year extensions, meaning she's secure until June 2015. That's still longer than any other AISD staff member, as they are all currently employed on one-year contracts. But by not adding more time to her tenure, the board has quietly raised the question of whether the clock is now officially ticking on her time in the district.

Still, even with those clouds on her horizon, the evaluation marked the end of a good, long weekend for Carstarphen. Two days earlier, her parents had visited Austin to see her receive the Austin NAACP's DeWitty/Overton Freedom Award for civil rights. The group has been an unwavering supporter of her work, and Austin branch president Nelson Linder made sure he was front-and-center at Monday's board meeting as Carstarphen delivered her own report to the board. While conceding that "our middle schools have a lot of work to do," she reiterated that Austin is one of the higher-performing districts in the state, and that graduation results are at an "all-time high" of 82.5%. However, she was audibly defensive about criticisms that the district does not provide clear comparisons to the other big cities in Texas, known as the Metro 8. She even took potshots at reporting in "the paper" (district shorthand for the Austin American-Statesman, which had run an editorial on Dec. 14 arguing that the district should let her contract expire in 2015.)

Both the pro- and anti-Carstarphen forces can arguably walk away claiming a victory. The Carstarphen-boosters were out in force, among them defeated 2006 district board candidate Alberto Gonzalez and AISD Facilities Master Plan Task Force member Larry Amaro (one of the few supporters among the Allan community of the abortive IDEA Allan partnership), both speaking as if the evaluation was a glowing endorsement of her performance. Meanwhile, the last year has undoubtedly seen a cooling of the open warfare between Carstarphen and her critics. After the public backlash over Allan Ele­men­tary and the Eastside Mem­or­ial campus, it's been a comparatively peaceful time for the superintendent. "I don't want to see any more fighting," said Vincent Tovar, spokesman for Pride of the Eastside, summing up the change in mood.

But will this vote be really enough to calm the waters? Carstarphen's tenure remains on a knife edge, and immediately after the evaluation, several board members broke the "Kumbaya" chorus. As Carstar­phen read out loud the list of schools "frozen to transfers" in the upcoming school year, at-large Trustee Gina Hinojosa pushed her for more details on how those campuses were selected. After that, Carstarphen's longest-serving critic, District 7 Trustee Robert Schnei­der, raised the thorny question of when AISD will launch the long-overdue and long-promised districtwide attendance zone re-drawing. The annual tinkering with a few boundaries has done little to alleviate overcrowding in his rapidly-expanding district, and Carstarphen's promise that it will be broached in the next facilities master plan did little to alleviate the tension.

If Carstarphen thinks she has it rough now, she may face a very different board before her contract expires in 2015. The 2012 elections were a referendum on the old trustees, with incumbents replaced by more critical newcomers. It's no secret that 2014 is shaping up to be a repeat of those high-elbows races. Rumors are already spreading that the business community is looking for a candidate to take out Schneider. Mean­while, when at-large Trustee Tamala Barks­dale joined the board in 2010, she was expected to be a stronger check on the superintendent. Now she seems likely to face a challenger from the same support base that put her there in the first place.

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News, Austin Independent School District, Meria Carstarphen, AISD, Overton Freedom Award, Vince Torres, Austin NAACP's DeWitty, Nelson Linder, Metro 8, Alberto Gonzalez, Larry Amaro, IDEA Allan, Allan Ele­men­tary, Eastside Mem­or­ial, Vincent Tovar, Pride of the Eastside, Gina Hinojosa, Robert Schnei­der, Tamala Barks­dale

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