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Wall of board support for Atlanta school chief weakens. Why? 


School superintendents seem to go through the same life cycles as furniture. 

You invest in a spiffy sofa set. When it first shows up, a few doubts emerge. Is it too big for the space? Does it clash with the rug?  

But the piece grows on you. However, time passes, and the room now seems outdated. Do you freshen up the set with new throw pillows or start looking for a different model? 

Three members of the Atlanta Board of Education appear in the mood to redecorate, as indicated by their reservations Monday about extending the contract of superintendent Meria Carstarphen. The board vote to extend the contract was 6-3.

As AJC reporter Vanessa McCray reports

Two newcomers who joined the board in January -- Erika Mitchell and Michelle Olympiadis-- joined board member Leslie Grant in voting against the one-year extension. 

Though the superintendent gained a majority of the board’s backing, the dissenting votes represent a crack in what has been solid support for the superintendent, hired in 2014. The previous board twice extended her contract. In 2015, it did so unanimously. In 2017, the board voted 7-0 vote, with two members absent, to extend it again through June 30, 2019. Monday’s vote lengthens her term through June 30, 2020. 

School boards ought to hold school chiefs to high standards, but dislodging a superintendent should be done with great care as it can set a district back and reverse progress. 

From the statements tonight of dissenting board members, I’m unclear why they’re uncomfortable with her leadership.

For example, Olympiadis released this statment: “The increased dysfunctional spending patterns over this same time are impacting our schools' ability to maintain high quality seats and properly address an increasing concentration of our students most in need and vulnerable to educate: our students with the most severe behavioral and mental health challenges, our underserved students with disabilities, our students who speak little to no English, and families, who given everyday challenges, offer the least parental support. Even with the best efforts of dedicated staff in our schools, we are at a breaking point. In this continued state we are left with difficult solutions for our future.”

I am not sure superintendents or schools are the solution to all the dire problems Olympiadis outlined, such as severe mental health challenges in children or parents unable to provide needed support.

Certainly, Carstarphen’s improvement strategy, including bringing in charter networks to lead some struggling schools, reconfiguring and closing schools and shifting principals, merits debate. It’s also fair to ask Carstarphen how Atlanta is addressing the inequalities that accompany students to school.

But those inequalities won’t be righted in the classroom alone. They demand a much larger cultural and societal response. 


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.