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Austin School Superintendent Carstarphen Leaving for Atlanta

Meria Carstarphen in a file photo from 2009, shortly before she was hired by the Austin ISD school board.
Photo by Nathan Bernier for KUT News
AISD Supt. Carstarphen is leaving Austin ISD for Atlanta Public Schools.

Austin ISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen has been named as the sole finalist for the superintendent job in Atlanta, Georgia.

She was chosen from a list of four candidates for the position.

Carstarphen came to Austin ISD in 2009. The district has faced significant challenges during her tenure, including $60 million in funding cuts after the 2011 Legislative session.

In a statement today, Carstarphen said Austin had risen to meet those challenges.

"As a school district, we have come together to support and help each other amid dwindling resources to serve our growing and incredibly diverse student body," Carstarphen said in a statement. "As a community, we have become a national model, drawing attention for our work to challenge and reform educational systems to meet students where they are, while working to ensure they have a fighting chance to get to where they want to be—to achieve their greatest potential."

When Atlanta officials introduced Carstarphen Thursday, she said she was attracted to Atlanta because of her childhood in Selma, Alabama and personal experience in civil rights. 

“As an African American, I have to tell you that it makes especially proud that the city of Atlanta believes that a young African American woman could be here and be part of this extraordinary belief that we are going to do this thing together," Carstarphen said, as the crowd applauded.

Carstarphen is the first African American and first womanto run the Austin school district.

After nearly five years, Drew Scheberle with the Austin Chamber of Commerce says Carstarphen has left Austin’s schools in a better place than she found it.

“We do have record graduation rates," Scheberle says. "Austin ISD will have 1,000 more students graduate college ready than they did when she got here. We’ve never had more students graduate than we did this past year."

Last year, 82.5 percent of students graduated from high school, up seven points from when she started in 2009.

Austin School Board Trustee Robert Schneider says the superintendent called him earlier today to alert him she is the sole finalist in Atlanta. He wishes her the best of luck and says her assumed departure raises questions.

"Is Dr. Carstarphen the only one that's leaving?" Schneider asked in a phone interview. "Will we have other people in high administrative positions looking to move to other positions as well? It's conceivable, to me at least, that Dr. Carstarphen may want to take some of the folks we have."

Carstarphen's departure comes as the school board and district are in the middle of a variety of initiatives, including the Facility Master Plan. The plan is scheduled to be finished by the end of June and includes specific steps to address attendance boundary and transfer issues, and how to balance under-enrolled and overcrowded schools.

"If you're doing all of that by June and the person that's leading the district is leaving, how's that going to play out?" Trustee Schneider asked.

Meanwhile, officials say it could be eight months to a year before the school board chooses a new superintendent.

“We’ve got a board election [in November]. That maybe something the board wants to take into account," said School Board President Vincent Torres at a press briefing Thursday evening. "We certainly want to engage the community and get their input as to how they want us to proceed.” 

Five board members are up for election in November. The other four are just starting their second year. Between that and a new superintendent, it could mean a lot of new faces on the school board dais, which also means a lot of catching up.

“Certainly any time the board has a significant turnover there’s a steep learning curve that has to occur," Torres says.

It also means the school board must make some big decisions.  Scheberle says the board needs a strong interim-leader to guide the district as it figures out its next step.

“The board itself has been deeply conflicted and just hasn’t made decisions and this is a billion dollar enterprise," Scheberle says. "The board needs to have a strong leader because they are refusing to bring leadership themselves.”

Ken Zarifis, president of the teacher's union, Education Austin, sees it as an opportunity.

"As things change, they are not a misfortune or something to be upset about," Zarifis says. "It really is an opportunity for the district to say, 'Ok, right now, what is our vision for the future? And who out there will help us to move forward with this vision?'"

Education Austin and the school district have not always seen eye to eye. Recently, the two organizations disagreed whether to give teachers one- or three-year contracts. After declaring an impasse on the issue, the school board voted to extend three-year contracts to teachers. It was a victory for the union.

"I think it's a good decision for her," Zarifis continued. "And if it's a good decision for her, then it's a good decision for the district because we need to be working with people that want to be here in the district."

AISD officials say Carstarphen will remain in Atlanta until Sunday.

A formal vote by the Atlanta school board will be held April 14.

Matt Largey is the Projects Editor at KUT. That means doing a little bit of everything: editing reporters, producing podcasts, reporting, training, producing live events and always being on the lookout for things that make his ears perk up. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.
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