By Jeff Cochran, publisher of Atlanta Loop and Dan Whisenhunt, publisher of Decaturish
Maybe some of her friends warned Meria Carstarphen about taking the job. Accepting the position of Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent was like walking into a hurricane. The district — and the city at large — was reeling from the cheating scandal that cost former superintendent Beverly Hall her job and led to racketeering convictions for eleven educators.
Erroll Davis stepped in after Hall resigned and spent most of his time cleaning up the mess.
When it came time to choose a new leader, the School Board sought a leader who could see beyond the storm.
In 2014, Carstarphen took on the biggest challenge of her life. She put the shame and controversy in the rear-view and signaled to her administrators, teachers and students to look straight ahead. The storm passed. Atlanta Public Schools was no longer mired in a scandal that made national headlines. Instead APS, under Carstarphen’s leadership, got on with preparing young Atlantans for a life of achievement. APS made progress and exceeded goals. The APS Board should be doing everything possible to hang on to Meria Carstarphen. But that isn’t happening. They’re not even sure they want to keep her once her contract expires next June. Seriously, is any job safe?
Carstarphen’s fate will be discussed at Monday’s meeting of the Atlanta School Board. The possibility of extending her contract is the only item on the meeting’s agenda. Some back-room prepping has already taken place, however. On Friday the AJC reported the board’s law firm, Nelson Mullin has decided to hire public relations company Jackson Spalding to advise and help the board explain its conclusions regarding Carstarphen. Jackson Spalding is a reputable PR company. Good people. But one can’t help but remember Jack Lemmon as a PR guy in The Days of Wine and Roses. Lemmon’s character, Joe Clay, explains to his future father-in-law what exactly his job entails. He stammers along, saying that his job is to “sort of help my client create a public image…… to help my client to operate in a way the public approves….. let’s say my client Corporation X does some good, something seen as a benefit to the to the public, my job is to see the public knows it.”
The old man is trying to take it all in. He asks, “But if your X corporation makes a mistake and things turn out bad?” Joe responds, “Well I try to make it look not quite so bad.” The old man isn’t impressed. “I don’t understand that kind of work,” he says, walking away.
That scene from a 1962 film gives us an idea of what may be ahead for Meria Carstarphen. And some PR types will “try to make it look not quite so bad.”
The School Board’s handling of this situation is amateur hour. Hiring and firing a superintendent is the most important job a School Board member has. They should be able to look their constituents in the eye and explain their votes. They know they are about to do something very polarizing and none of them have the guts to defend their decision in public. And if they can’t defend their decision in public, we have to ask: is this decision about what’s in the best interest of APS students or is it in the best interest of some board members who dislike the superintendent for personal reasons?
If the School Board decides to part ways with Carstarphen, they will then have to find a replacement for someone whose administration since 2014 has helped steer a once-dysfunctional system in the right direction. The achievements are many: according to Saporta Report, those achievements include a rise in graduation rates from 59 percent to 80 percent, higher SAT and ACT scores. There’s a decrease in principal turnover, down from 30 percent to 5 percent. Teacher vacancies are down significantly. Teacher salaries increased. A lot of those teachers will tell you salaries weren’t raised high enough or quickly enough but they will give Carstarphen credit for enthusiastic and goal-oriented leadership. She’s a battler.
We are aware Carstarphen is not perfect. She has a dynamic personality and we could see where her style would rub certain people the wrong way. And despite the school system’s gains, we know there’s still a long way to go. But we’d also defy the School Board to show us a superintendent who is perfect. Superintendents, especially in large school systems, serve many different constituencies. The problems of a parent in Buckhead are not comparable to the problems of a parent in English Avenue and Vine City. We are confident that whatever problems Carstarphen has can be addressed by the board. These things can be worked through. The board has so far not given us a compelling reason to reboot APS.
Getting rid of Carstarphen for vague reasons could also alienate parents who have bought into the system under her leadership.
Carstarphen has support from thousands, including 5th District Congressman John Lewis, who showed up at a recent school board meeting. Lewis, whose moral courage is legendary, called Carstarphen a smart and gifted leader and then advised the board, “This is not the time to go back.” Let’s hope the board thinks hard on what the congressman said and follows his advice.