AISD's Carstarphen Atlanta Bound

Superintendent named sole finalist to head Atlanta Public Schools

Meria Carstarphen speaks at SXSWedu, 2013.
Meria Carstarphen speaks at SXSWedu, 2013. (Photo by John Anderson)

"You can only stay in districts where they want you." That's what Meria Carstarphen said in 2009, when she abruptly quit her job as superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools to head up the Austin Independent School District. She may have occasion to say the same thing again, as it was announced on March 27 that she is the sole finalist to become the new superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools.

There's an astounding symmetry to Car­starphen's arrival and expected departure from Austin. Five years ago, the first that the population of St. Paul, Minn., knew that she was considering quitting was when her name was leaked to the Austin American-Statesman and the St. Paul Pioneer Press* caught her flying to Austin for a barbecue lunch with the AISD trustees. This time, Carstarphen made better travel plans. She was already in Atlanta and holding press conferences when word got back to Austin.

It's still not quite a done deal: The Atlanta trustees must formally approve her hiring at their April 14 meeting, but Carstarphen is already talking like she's selecting wallpaper. In a statement released via AISD while she was in front of the Georgia news cameras, she said, "As a daughter of the Deep South, I have a personal draw to Atlanta and it's deeply rooted in my own upbringing and personal experience in civil rights, having been born and raised in Selma, Alabama. I look forward to the opportunity to support the Atlanta community and rebuild the Atlanta Public Schools." Rebuild being the operative word: If selected, Car­star­phen takes over a district that is slowly emerging from one of the nation's worst test-fixing scandals, and former Super­in­ten­dent Beverly Hall (whom Carstarphen used to regularly cite as a role model) now faces federal racketeering charges.

In his own March 27 statement, AISD Board President Vince Torres praised Carstarphen, saying that "with equal parts hearts and smarts, [she] has led AISD during a period of transformative change in Austin." But he was at least partially blindsided by Carstarphen's announcement, telling the Chronicle that he only found out about her planned departure when she called him that morning from Atlanta.

Putting a diplomatic period on district staff's often tense relationship with Car­star­phen, Education Austin President Ken Zari­fis said, "What's good for her is good for us." While he did not begrudge her moving on, he was disappointed in the handling of the announcement. He received a text from Car­star­phen on the morning of the Atlanta announcement that she was in consideration, but not that she was the sole candidate. Moreover, most Austinites found out by Twitter and breaking headlines out of Atlanta. Since Carstarphen is an employee of AISD and not APS, it should have been the other way round. "Our district, our schools, our community, should find out first," he said, "That way, the time spent here could be acknowledged."

There was one big difference between Carstarphen's exit from Austin and how she left Minnesota: Austinites already knew her days were numbered. In 2009, she was expected to sign up with St. Paul for another three years. When the Statesman first leaked her name, St. Paul Federation of Teachers President Mary Cathryn Ricker said, "My first reaction was it was just a way to move her negotiations up here." By contrast, during her much-delayed annual board evaluation last December, AISD trustees declined to extend her contract by an extra year (see "Carstarphen Report Card: B Is for Bland," Dec. 20, 2013), meaning her current deal would expire at the end of the 2014-15 school year.

However, don't blame one tepid evaluation for her exit. Within education circles, it's been no secret that Carstarphen has been looking for an out for years, with rumors of out-of-state job interviews stretching back to 2011. These weren't school-yard rumors, but off-the-record briefings from senior cabinet and staff at the district's Carruth Administration Center. Torres confirmed that he had been getting phone calls from headhunters for other districts for the last six to eight months. He would ask Carstarphen about their inquiries and "she'd either say 'Yes, but I'm not interested,' or 'No, I've never heard of them.'" There's little surprise in any of this, he said: "Any time that a superintendent gets to the last or next-to-last year of their contract, they're ripe for the picking from other districts."

There's also speculation Carstarphen will take at least some of her team with her. Top of that list may well be AISD Chief Finan­cial Officer Nicole Conley: She was one of Carstarphen's first big hires in 2009, but the pair also worked together in the mid-Aughties in the District of Columbia Public Schools, where Conley was director of resource allocation and management and Carstarphen was chief accountability officer. And if she did go, Conley could give Carstarphen some local knowledge, as she was briefly Atlanta's deputy CFO during the Hall era.

How will AISD move forward to fill Carstarphen's office? When her predecessor, Pat Forgione, retired in 2009, he had actually given trustees more than a year's notice, so they had plenty of time to find a successor. This time around, Torres said it is almost inevitable that the board will appoint an interim superintendent. Internal names being floated around the district include Chief Schools Officer Paul Cruz, Chief Academic Officer Pauline Dow, Assoc­iate Superintendent of High Schools Edmund Oropez, and Carstarphen's chief of staff and former AISD general counsel Mel Waxler (who received his superintendent certification in 2009).

The next big question is, how long should the district depend on an interim before finding a permanent replacement? Torres argues that, "unless this board decides to fast-track it," the next superintendent will not be selected until early 2015. However, five board seats are up for election in November, so while the current board may start the selection process, Torres said, "The next board has to be the one to hire the next superintendent."

Torres argues that, between finalizing the new facility master plan and strategic plan, putting a budget together, and implementing the new course and accountability requirements of House Bill 5, the current board is already overburdened with big decisions. But At-Large Trustee Gina Hinojosa contends that same workload is exactly why they must select a new superintendent fast, and that the Texas Association of School Boards told her the process could take as little as three months. She said, "Last time, it took a year because Pat Forgione gave a year's notice," but if the district waits a year "I have a concern that we'll be rudderless."

Whatever the timeline, Torres also plans to launch a public consultation process. He sees the core issues as obvious: the budget, campus use in the facility master plan, as well as strengthening academic achievement. "I don't think any of that has changed," he said, "but we need to check in with the community to see if any priorities have changed."

Zarifis said he's hoping for a more transparent hiring process than in 2009, which he described as "very private, closed, and quiet." At the time, then-trustee Sam Guzmán publicly apologized for a lack of transparency, while former Education Aus­tin President Louis Malfaro called the thin efforts at public consultation "crap." This time, Zarifis wants meaningful public input, beginning with well-publicized, well-attended feeder school and focus group meetings "to find out what stakeholders, families, labor, teachers, community want in the next superintendent." While he understands that there has to be a degree of privacy, so qualified candidates are not worried about alienating their current employers, he rejects having a single finalist presented to the community as a fait accompli. He said, "I would very much like to think that we could find two or three finalists, and at that point part of the process involves these candidates going out into the ­community."

Note: "St. Paul Pioneer Press" -- because of an editing error, this originally read "Atlanta Journal Constitution."

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News, AISD, Meria Carstarphen, Atlanta Public Schools, Nicole Conley, Paul Cruz, Pauline Dow, Pat Forgione, Edmund Oropez, Mel Waxler, Gina Hinojosa, Sam Guzman, Louis Malfaro, Vince Torres

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