CHICKENS COME HOME TO ROOST

The Ousting of School Superintendent Meria Carstarphen

The decision of the Atlanta School Board not to extend the contract of Superintendent Dr. Meria Carstarphen is both unbelievable and predictable at once. By all accounts, Dr. Carstarphen worked hard and did much of what the Board asked of her, including transitioning the Atlanta School System into one of the most chartered systems in the state. She also consolidated schools and outsourced low performing ones. She even hired the chief architect of the failed Opportunities School District proposal from the office of former Governor Nathan Deal to advise on how best to keep Atlanta’s worst performing schools out of the reach of the governor’s turnaround czar.

These acts, alone, placed Carstarphen in the crosshairs of the scope of the Atlanta chapter of the Georgia Federation of Teachers (GFT). The GFT is a teachers’ union advantaged by its stance of neutrality in the last governor’s race wherein now Gov. Brian Kemp defeated GA House minority leader Stacey Abrams. By remaining neutral in the race the GFT can truthfully say to Gov. Kemp that it did not work against his candidacy. Citing problems with both candidates, GFT President Verdalia Turner stated prior to last year’s historic race for governor that Kemp was slightly preferred over Abrams (despite his full-throated embracing of the 45th U.S. President). This was the best outcome Kemp could have hoped for from a union that historically has backed Democrats for local and national offices.

The union is angry with Carstarphen for several reasons: her support and maybe preference for charter schools, closing or consolidation of neighborhood schools, and, recently and of major significance, her failure to find money in this year’s budget to provide each teacher a $3,000 bump in salary of the $5,000 the Governor promised. Kemp contributed to the fallout between the superintendent, teachers and union by only partially funding the raises he promised teachers during his campaign.

The shortfall left local school systems scrambling to find additional funds to fulfill the governor’s commitment. The APS refused to identify additional funds from within its budget; instead, it seized upon the opportunity to pressure or embarrass city hall into paying up on a debt it owed the school system from a past tax allocation district obligation.

This strategy backfired; the city refused to pay. And now teachers, the union, and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms are all mad as hell at the superintendent. A recent poll by Phi Delta Kappa International indicates that teachers are mad in general about their salaries, lack of respect, and stress and burnout. In fact, the poll found teachers are so upset about their working conditions they would either strike or might leave the profession. Given this, the superintendent could not expect teachers to be on her side.

A fuller appreciation of why Dr. Carstarphen’s contract was not extended requires one to understand the evolution of Atlanta politics—from a governing coalition of pragmatic white businessmen and civil rights leaders in the 50s, 60s to decentralized power hierarchies throughout the city now. In the past, the old governing coalition sat down and agreed that there would be no busing in Atlanta and there wasn’t. As a consequence, Atlanta would have its first black superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools in 1973, following the historic election of Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Holbrook Jackson.

That’s the way things got done back then. The recent death of the always noble civil rights leader Juanita Abernathy reminds us sadly that the older generation of black leadership has come and gone. There has been a generational shift in Atlanta politics that has been underway at least since Shirley Franklin left the mayor’s office after serving two terms as its first woman mayor in 2008.

The new generation of black leaders, mostly born after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther, Jr., is neither influenced by Atlanta’s downtown business elite nor are they influenced by old guard civil rights leaders like former Mayor and U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young, U.S. Representative and former SNCC leader John Lewis, or former Mayor Shirley Franklin. This was shown when the old guard closed ranks in an effort to get Carstarphen’s contract renewed, and the younger members of the School Board politely said to the old guard, “thanks but no thanks.”

The governor was of no help to Carstarphen either. The relationship between local government and the governor’s office has weakened since Mayor Reed left office. In fact, the school board never had a strong relationship with the governor. Indeed, it was state consultants who issued a report that immersed the Atlanta school system into one of its most embarrassing and scandalous controversy to date—the so-called test cheating debacle.

It’s lonely at the top and no one knows this better than a superintendent of a large urban school system. I know, I’ve been there as a college president. Superintendents today have to be politicians, diplomats, motivators, community animators, and smart transformational leaders over systems that are larger than most cities in Georgia.

Carstarphen, the darling of the Metro Chamber, Central Atlanta Progress and many business elites, Republican supporters of vouchers, the black old guard which is often at odds with the younger generation of black leaders, had a steep hill to climb in a city that has not come to terms with the push and pull of its past and present. Against the odds, she tried to save her job by going public, but could not.

So who is left to fight for or with Dr. Carstarphen? The old guard can’t do it. The new leadership who rallied to insure that she became the superintendent is no longer her base of support. It seems as if it’s only the Atlanta Journal Constitution, considered by many Blacks as a last bastion of old Dixie. The end to this saga reminds us of what Brother Malcolm called “chickens come home to roost.”

12 thoughts on “CHICKENS COME HOME TO ROOST

  1. Seldom have I read a more clear concise objective assessment of a situation than the words conveyed by Dr. Jabari Simama. He skillfully and articulately outlined the conditions for the contract, of the superintendent, not being signed. It is a sad day when politics and personalities corrode the opportunity for old and young, past and present, Northside and Southside to find common ground for educating the children of Atlanta. The search for a new qualified superintendent will be challenging unless those responsible for educating our children can bury personal and organizational asprirations and place the education of our childten at the top of their mutual agendas.

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  2. Thank you Dr. Simama for the clarity brought to this subject. I am now fully aware of the intricacies surrounding the Superintendent’s contract dispute.

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  3. You are misinformed on the teacher pay raises. The governor said he will give teachers $5,000 pay raise by the end of the first term. This year $3,000 was allocated in the state budget as the first installment towards the $5,000 teacher pay raise. So when you say that the superintendent had to cover the other $2,000, you are wrong. The superintendent didn’t even want to give every teacher the full $3,000 raise. The superintendent wanted to keep some of it for the school system. APS teachers were upset because the superintendent was not giving them the full $3,000 raise that the governor and the state legislature had appropriated.

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    1. I am clear on the $5,000 committed by Gov. Kemp. I am also aware that the $3,000 approved by the legislature was not enough to cover all eligible employees thus school systems had to find supplemental dollars to fully implement. I believe this was the case in DeKalb County too. Your position that the superintendent wanted to keep some of the state funding and use for other purposes is new information for me. If you can provide a source for this information I would be glad to offer an amplification and clarification. Thanks for the feedback.

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  4. The pressure to prevent the Atlanta Board of Education from doing the most important part of its job takes me back to 2010, when the majority of ABOE wanted to push further into reports from the AJC and the state. Members faced massive backlash from Hall and her allies including Reed / the Chamber / SACS / Butler-Burks.

    And really, after the cheating scandal, you’d think more people would want APS to periodically change superintendents. The problems were so extensive because Hall ran APS for 11 years. I don’t want rapid turnover but I also wouldn’t want any individual to run APS for such a long period again.

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    1. As it relates to the cheating scandal, would it not be wise to place this into a larger context than the lengthy tenure of the superintendent of APS? What about the artificial timetables and standards created by politicians who were not educators and Pres. Bush’s “no child left behind” initiative? Funding was tied to these politically driven benchmarks that had very little to do with student learning. This occurred in the middle of the so-called accountable movement. Educators including Hall, should have fought back against the outside imposed standards. Instead, they sought another way to get around them, and this is when the problems multiplied. I believe Hall deserved some of the blame but the system failed our students and the politically driven external standards did not create accountability–only more incentive for many to try to beat the system.

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      1. “Carstarphen was brought on to privatize Atlanta’s schools and she has done just that by selling off schools to Purpose Built, Kipp, and Kindezi organizations.”

        Vincent Fort makes an interesting observation/ accusation–the question for me is, “brought on to privatize” schools at whose behest and agreement? And who determined that more public monies should be invested in private / charter schools? And what aims will drive the next hiring? What are the stated education goals of the APS and the GFT, other than test scores? A more coherent position on public education from all parties would be welcomed by those who are truly concerned about the children and the nation.

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  5. Thank you for beginning a thoughtful conversation regarding Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and the future of the Atlanta Public Schools. Unfortunately, I disagree with some of the points you make.

    It is important that context be given to the controversy regarding the non-renewal of Carstarphen’s contract. I have not seen a campaign like the one to retain Carstarphen after her contract was not renewed since the Grady Hospital privatization. Then the business community collaborated with what you have termed the African-American “old guard” to control a critical public resource that had the mission of providing medical care to the poor.

    The ongoing public relations campaign being waged to pressure the Atlanta Board of Education to retain Carstarphen includes rolling out sitting elected officials such as John Lewis; and former elected officials such as Shirley Franklin; sending out glossy election campaign style mailers; and placing opinion articles in the local media. The leaders of this effort ought to reveal who is financing their pressure campaign. “Someone is “throwing a rock and hiding their hand”. Since the Chamber of Commerce became entwined in the Atlanta school cheating scandal, it has scrupulously kept a lower public profile when it comes to its role in APS.

    By the way, former Mayor Franklin does not often reveal her company, Purpose Built of which she is the CEO has a multi-million dollar contract with the Atlanta Public schools to operate privatized schools on the southside of the city.

    The question is why does the Chamber of Commerce types and the “Old Guard” feel so invested in Meria Carstarphen, so much so, that it appears they and she believes she has some kind of divine right to the position. A five year tenure for superintendents is very common. For the business community, Meria Carstarphen is just that-an investment. When she was hired in 2014 money was solicited from the business community to supplement her salary. I spoke out against it because I believed that it is a conflict of interest for a public official to have a substantial amount of their salary paid by a private party. A superintendent ought to be accountable to the public not to fat cats.

    Carstarphen was brought on to privatize Atlanta’s schools and she has done just that by selling off schools to Purpose Built, Kipp, and Kindezi organizations. Purpose Built and Kindezi will have been paid $62 million over three years. While the public thought Carstarphen was brought on to improve student performance, she gave that job to unaccountable charter school organizations that functioned in private The money these schools received was public but largely operated as private schools with little accountability. The superintendent also traumatized students and parents by the most difficult of all acts-closing and merging many schools.

    At the same time, the large chasm between between black and white student performance remained. Research shows that the academic results of privatizing schools and the turnaround plan for schools still run by APS are decidedly mixed. Generally there was some improvements but science, reading, and social studies performance went down. At the same time, suspensions went up at the schools run by Purpose Built. (https://www.boarddocs.com/ga/aps/Board.nsf/files/B8YVUN7BB05A/$file/2.02%20APS%20Turnaround%20Strategy%20-%20Year%202%20Report.FINAL_revised-2.1.19.pdf)

    I am greatly troubled by what appears to be your buying into the demonization of teachers generally and the Georgia Federation of Teachers in particular. I am hard pressed to understand how the 2018 gubernatorial campaign has anything to do with the non-renewal of Cartephen’s contract. (I am doing consulting for GFT.)

    It is a common tactic for school privatizers to make teachers the villain. APS teachers were reassigned and forced to reapply for their jobs when schools were closed, merged, or privatized during the present administration. Dr. Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania was quoted in an Atlanta Journal Constitution article saying teachers are “blamed for things over which they have no control…its an untested assumption. The assumption is that the teachers are the problem.”

    It is time to move on with an open, transparent superintendent search.

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  6. I don’t know who you are, but you have created the most synthesized list of issues related to APS. Thank you so much for your clarity. And you are absolutely correct about the broader issues. I believe-in studying the origins of the school to private prison pipeline, there are stronger underlying efforts effort to create another unjust system to capture and maintain this vulnerable population for years to come. Once systems are synchronized, you just sit back…and they are always poised toward the most vulnerable-single parents, the poor and people of color.

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  7. I am not sure how Senator Fort read in my column any lack of admiration for teachers. Teachers understand their interest and would not and should not support a superintendent who fails to get to them every dime of the state’s so-called 3% down payment on a hard earned and promised raise. They also do not and should not support a school system that is becoming more chartered. This could impact their long term interest too. I also don’t understand how crediting, in part, the GFT for the fate of the superintendent is demonizing the GFT. The GFT did its job if it believed Carstarphen worked against the interest of its main constituency, teachers. Why should it be afraid to own it? Maintaining leverage with Gov. Kemp (for any reason) also is relevant and not bad for the GFT. I hope in part his decision to provide a 5% bump for teachers was due to his respect for teachers and the influence of the GFT. Maybe I am wrong. Chickens come home to roost means Carstarphen created the elements of her demise. Balancing the interest of diverse constituencies and keeping your board happy are part of what any good superintendent must do. Carstarphen did not do this; thus, the outcome. I believe a careful reading of my column on Carstarphen would render a more balanced and less reactionary response on the part of Senator Fort and the GFT.

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