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.”