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Austin School District Brings Diversity to District Leadership

KUT News
Meria Carstarphen, Pauline Dow and Nicole Conley, the three female members of the Superintendent's senior cabinet. Carstarphen and Conley are the first female CEO and CFO in AISD's history.

When MeriaCarstarphenbecame superintendentof the Austin Independent School District, she became the first female Superintendent in the district’s history.

During her tenure, there have been more women in the superintendent’s senior cabinet than ever before, including female Chief Financial Officer, Nicole Conley and Chief Academics Officer, Pauline Dow.  

The three women also brought more minority leadership to the district. Carstarphen and Conley both identify as African American, while Dow is Hispanic.

When Nicole Conley came to AISD five years ago, she says there was no ethnic diversity in the district’s finance office. After working in New York City and Washington D.C., that shocked Conley. She says people in Texas didn’t hide their shock about her either.

“Because I’m such a rarity in Texas, I’ve met former commissioners and they say ‘oh, you’re the Austin CFO’ or I’ve had vendors call me and say, ‘we haven’t done business in Austin for years, but we’ve heard there was an African American woman CFO and we literally had to come put eyes on you,’” she remembers.

With a career in finance, Conley always been one of few women, whether it’s in a meeting or on the floor of the stock exchange.

“I've had to be a little pushy, be a little aggressive, always sort of speak up otherwise. You can’t be the silent type and work in a large, urban district--and Austin is an urban district-- and make progress and demonstrate leadership being the silent type," she says.

As African American women, Conley and Superintendent Carstarphen are a rarity when it comes to leadership in education, an area where men have historically held superintendent positions and women held the majority teaching positions. Nationwide, only six of the top 35 urban school districts have both female CEOs and CFOs.

Carstarphen says she’s had mixed reactions from people when they see she’s female and a minority.

“Sometimes it’s isolating, people can be embracing and other times they’re still trying to figure out what to do with it all," she said at the district's Martin Luther King Jr. celebration last week. Carstarphen often references her childhood in Selma, Alabama, which she says had a large influence on her growing up. 

But Nicole Conley says since she’s been at AISD, she’s seen changes within the district, especially among her own staff members.

“I am surprised to see them making decisions and hiring people of color, which I think is indicative of some of the work we’ve done to have some hard conversations about race," Conley says.

Another hard conversation for Conley is figuring out how to balance work and raising her two sons who go to school in the district. One of her kids is in special education.

“He is the young black boys that I see scoring on the bottom of all the stats," she says. 

The job of CFO often means long hours, late-night board meetings and weekend retreats.

There are sad moments when I come home [early] and the kids are surprised to see me, like “what, what happened? You’re home!'” Conley says. "To me, it kind of makes me sad. I’m happy that they’re happy to see me and they can experience some time we wouldn’t have otherwise, but its sad that they feel as if, ‘what happened, why is Mommy home?'”

Conley says the district understands her need to balance her job as mother and CFO, but it’s a balance that may keep many women out of leadership positions in education. According to a 2011 report from the American Association of School Administrators, 24 percent of superintendents nationwide are women. 

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