Atlanta Public Schools is looking for a new superintendent.

The Atlanta Board of Education has opted not to renew the contract of Superintendent Meria Carstarphen.

“It is with great sadness that I must inform you that the Atlanta Board of Education this morning decided to launch a search for a new superintendent,” Carstarphen wrote in a letter to the district’s staff that was emailed to the Neighbor. “Serving the children of Atlanta Public Schools in this role – and working alongside each of you – has been the greatest honor of my professional life.

“As I have expressed for the past few months, I had a sincere desire for a contract extension so that our team and I could complete the vision and charge I was hired to achieve for the benefit of Atlanta’s children: rebuild and restore trust in Atlanta Public Schools and position it for the future, especially after the largest cheating scandal in the history of public education.”

The board chose not to renew Carstarphen’s contract, which expires June 30, following the 2019-20 academic year, at a special called meeting Sept. 9 at district headquarters downtown. She is expected to remain as the superintendent through the final day of her contract.

Because personnel decisions can be made during executive session, this one did not require a public vote by the board. But had the board decided to renew Carstarphen’s contract, the board would have had to publicly vote on it.

In a joint statement emailed to the Neighbor, the board explained why it chose not to renew her contract. The board added it met privately with her in July about the possibility her contract would not be renewed but waited until September to announce it so it wouldn’t disrupt the school year, which started Aug. 12.

“The decision not to offer her a fourth contract extension was difficult,” the board stated. “Since we extended her contract last year, the board has received input from many in the community related to the future of our system. Board leadership notified Dr. Carstarphen in July there was not majority support on the board for another extension and this was reiterated to her several times over the past few weeks.

“We asked her to work with the board on a transition plan for June 2020, as is customary in these situations. We waited until now to address this publicly because we did not want to disrupt or overshadow the start of the new academic year. The board acknowledges there will be some disagreement related to this decision, but we believe it is important for the good of the entire system to move forward now.”

Carstarphen, who began her tenure in 2014 at the start of the 2014-15 academic year, has been praised for her efforts in turning around a school district plagued by the CRCT cheating scandal of 2009. During her tenure the district’s graduation rate has increased 20.8% to an all-time high of 79.9% in 2018 but still below the state average of 81.6% and other local school districts’ rates.

At the board’s Sept. 3 meeting, supporters including District 5 U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, encouraged the board to renew Carstarphen’s contract. But opponents such as the Georgia Federation of Teachers, which called for the board to fire Carstarphen and for its chair, Seat 9 at-large member Jason Esteves, to resign, also spoke at the meeting.

They have criticized Carstarphen for giving teachers only two-thirds of the raises they were promised by the state (due to a lack of some funds the district claims the city owes it). Others criticized the superintendent for her decision to close and merge some schools and to hire charter school groups to run some schools.

Carstarphen’s two previous contract renewals took place about a year before her contracts were to expire, so the decision not to renew her current contract may not be a total surprise.

In June 2018 the Atlanta Board of Education voted 6-3 to approve a one-year contract extension for Carstarphen, through June 30, 2020. Board members Leslie Grant, Erika Mitchell and Michelle Olympiadis dissented. In January 2017 the board voted to lengthen Carstarphen’s contract for one year, through June 30, 2019.

Both in a June interview with the Neighbor and in her letter, Carstarphen said she still had plenty of work to do to get the district to the level of success she foresaw when she started the job.

“The disparity in educational outcomes for Atlanta’s children has been intergenerational and systemic,” she wrote. “The solutions are not easy, which is why I so passionately wanted to stay and finish the job I was hired to do.

“The Atlanta community entrusts its children and its hard-earned tax dollars to us. We owe it to our community to continue to get up each day and show up for our children. I am incredibly humbled by the support and grateful for our community of students, caregivers, principals, teachers, staff, alumni and partners who have been so supportive of the work we have done.”

Seat 8 at-large board member Cynthia Briscoe Brown, one of the board’s two Buckhead representatives, had said in a July 2018 interview with the Neighbor she supported Carstarphen, but that changed not long after the interview. Briscoe Brown said the majority of board members were in favor of not renewing Carstarphen’s contract but would not name which members sided which way at the meeting.

However, Briscoe Brown said she was opposed to renewing the superintendent’s contract. She said her decision was not personal against Carstarphen, but she felt it was time for a different kind of leader to take over the district’s helm.

“I consider her a valued professional colleague and have learned a lot from her over the past five years,” Briscoe Brown said. “I’ve been considering issues of transition and succession for over a year, since we began discussions on the last extension in 2018. We’ve made great progress in the past five-plus years, and Meria has been the engine driver of that.

“We have lots more work to do to ensure that every child gets what they need to succeed. I think APS is in a different place now that we were in 2014., and I believe we need a different skill set in our superintendent going forward. We’re developing new strategic plan which will begin in July 2020 (the current five-year strategic plan ends in June), so transitioning now gives us a chance to hire to the plan.”

Briscoe Brown said it was difficult for the board to communicate to the community about this decision due to the fact that personnel matters must be handled privately in executive session. Parents reportedly said there should have been more transparency with the decision, including a formal vote by board members to determine who sided which way.

When asked what kind of skills the new superintendent would need to have, she said, “I think we will develop the specifics of that as we finish the strategic plan and develop a job description which aligns with that plan. But I think the work going forward is different. To say APS was on fire in 2014 and we needed a firefighter (is true). But now I think we have more mud than fire, and slogging through mud (takes) a different set of gifts and passions.”

District 4 board member, Nancy Meister, the group’s other Buckhead representative, who had previously supported Carstarphen in interviews with the Neighbor, said she was still backing her as the superintendent.

“Meria’s leadership has been amazing for the children of Atlanta, and she has so much support from her staff, principals and teachers,” Meister said. “As a 10-year board member, I am devastated that the decision to non-renew was announced.”

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