APS new superintendent-elect Carstarphen – a look into who she is and what she thinks

Below are a series of extracts from numerous articles written about Meria Carstarphen, the new superintendent-elect for APS. I tried to include those items that tell us something about her career, working style and decision making. Some of the articles are older (there is a date by each one), but more current articles seem to confirm the prior assessments.

My quick assessment from this review is that she is energetic and passionate – everyone needs to hold on tight as I think that we are in for a very positive and interesting ride!

Twin Cities.com (published 06/03/07) – Meria Carstarphen: Vigilance and vision

In her first experience running a school system, Carstarphen, 37, has shown many of the same tendencies: extensive consultation with others, over-preparation and the pursuit of goals by breaking them into small, measurable pieces.

“I really listen and I really engage,” Carstarphen said. “I ask a lot of questions. I think for some people that gets misinterpreted.”

Bill Larson, a retired district administrator who filled in temporarily this year as executive director of operations, said he saw Carstarphen do more in six months than other superintendents have done in two or three years. “She’s really, I think, unique among the superintendents I’ve known” in terms of her passion for the job, Larson said. “Meria is impatient. She wants to move the agenda.

Carstarphen started full time in late July, and her main accomplishments in the first year of her three-year contract include leading the effort to pass a levy renewal and expansion in the fall; revamping a central administrative structure she found sprawling and too complex; and delivering a five-year strategic plan. [Emphasis added]

But others say Carstarphen’s exhaustive approach verges into micromanaging. Though she’s qualified academically to lead the district, “as a manager, as a leader, she doesn’t have the skills at all,” said one central office staffer who requested anonymity because of potential career repercussions.

They love Carstarphen’s message to parents and community groups – basically, get the kids to us on time and ready to learn so we can do our jobs. “Teachers are just amazed there is someone out there explicitly delivering that message on their behalf.” …”She asks very direct questions right away, and there is no grace period of getting to know you.” 

She’s brought “a sense of accountability,” Holman said, insisting on outcomes that are measurable and plans that are aligned throughout the district. “That’s a real different approach that we see in St. Paul.”

…She is often described as a workaholic. She declined to specify her typical start and stop times, but co-workers have talked about her digging into a pile of papers at 10 p.m., and she has been known to answer e-mails after 11.

Asked about her leadership style, Carstarphen said she believes in promoting from within, evidenced notably this year by the elevation of Valeria Silva from director of English Language Learner programs to chief academic officer. Carstarphen also said her directness comes from wanting staff to know exactly where she stands.

She said her management approach draws on the thinking of several Harvard professors, as well as former Secretary of State Colin Powell. From those sources, Carstarphen has distilled some key principles that have guided her approach to leading the district over this past year of change.

“Transition is really hard,” she said, and it’s important for both leaders and employees not to take things personally. Good leaders also must have a broad view of their organization’s direction and a fierce commitment to making sure the small stuff goes well, she said.

Austin American Statesman (07/27/13) – Austin’s schools chief rebounds from tough year

After four years as the chief of Austin schools, Carstarphen has critics who are both vocal and well-placed. At least four of the nine school board members have been critical of her leadership style. She sometimes bristles when her decisions are questioned, and she has been faulted for advocating sweeping changes with little buy-in from the teachers and parents who are the heart of the school system.

And yet the city’s business establishment, led by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, has rallied around her. Organized parent groups say she’s been willing to hear them out, and many laud her ability to connect with students. That support has helped her weather a tough year.

Carstarphen has shown the same resilience that allowed her to overcome substantial public outcry in 2011 — when her proposal to close several successful schools and to cut 1,100 positions had opponents calling for her removal.

And, while some in the community blame Carstarphen and her staff for voters’ rejection of half of an $892 million school bond package in May, her supporters are quick to point out that $490 million in bonds passed, and the failures were by a slim margin.

“Every year I think it can’t possibly be that challenging again — and it just is,” Carstarphen said. Her supporters say the high-profile setbacks shouldn’t take attention away from steady progress the district has made in graduation rates, her openness to innovation and alternative schools, or the district’s solid financial footing despite state budget cuts and other shifts that are beyond her control.

“She’s a strong leader, who is very creative and believes in innovation but pays attention to the research data,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of Great City Schools, the country’s primary coalition of large urban school systems. “She is an out-of-the-box thinker, but her overriding commitment is always to the kids.”

“Her ability to touch students is remarkable,” said Mark Williams, the former school board president who was on the board for most of her tenure. “When you get her out of the limelight and with students, she’s gifted.”

Monica Sanchez, president of the Austin Council of PTAs, said Carstarphen is accessible and is always open to meeting with the group. “Every time I call her, she responds,” Sanchez said. “She’s easy to talk to. She responds to questions very thoughtfully and doesn’t shy away from questions.”

But others say she is thin-skinned and reluctant to consider other points of view. At school board meetings, she has rolled her eyes at her bosses when they asked a question she found irrelevant, or when they second-guessed the district’s response to an issue or problem.

The perception that she isn’t open to feedback has hurt morale in the district, said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, the largest employee group, representing 3,000 district workers, mostly teachers. “We have an environment where people are afraid to speak up or are discouraged from speaking up. That’s what we have, and it’s a sad statement, because that is a tone that’s set by leadership,” Zarifis said. “Dissent and critical thinking are valuable if a system wants to evolve.” Carstarphen disagrees with the assessment.

“What staff reports to me, and I feel as well, is frustration around the high stakes accountability in Texas, and the deep budget cuts forced on us by the state,” she said. “Our staff is deeply engaged in the process and, most importantly, directly involved in the solutions.”

“If you look at the district as a whole, is it better than it was before she got here?” Williams said. “I would offer that AISD is better than it was four years ago. Have there been misfirings? Problems? Yes. But taking into consideration all the variables that come into play, I think she’s done a remarkable job.”

Carstarphen has guided the district through difficult budget years. She and her administrative team inherited a $15 million shortfall in 2009-10 and closed that gap within one year, presenting a balanced 2010-11 budget.

“Our programs benefit all families, all students, in some way,” Carstarphen said. “The closer we get to ensuring what we are doing programmatically is in alignment with the value system of this community, we will be able to hold our own.”

The district’s advances under Carstarphen’s leadership have earned her the praise and support of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

In 2011, discussions among a task force working with Carstarphen to close academically successful schools — to save $11.3 million — prompted hundreds of parents to protest. Parents decried the talks and said the district lacked transparency.

“Her pace of play is sometimes faster than Austin as a community can move,” Williams said. “She was new to Austin, and she really had to adapt. We can be mad about what she did two years ago, but she’s learning. Setting aside process and community listening, she’s been pretty courageous. She really is doing as much or more than her peers around the country.”

Still, some said they haven’t seen the successes from Carstarphen they had hoped for.

Tensions rose again in 2012 over Eastside Memorial, where the community fought hard against IDEA Public Schools, the charter operator Carstarphen picked to run the troubled high school.

The school board approved the partnership with what critics say was little discussion, prompting a backlash from students, parents and residents who protested outside the board room and marched in the streets. The charter operator also moved into Allan Elementary in the fall of 2012; 85 percent of students transferred out. Three new board members were elected in November, helping to tip the scales, and the IDEA partnership was terminated a month later. A committee of Eastside parents, teachers and school district officials evaluated five firms vying to operate the school and recommended Baltimore-based Talent Development Secondary of Johns Hopkins University. … School board President Vincent Torres said the district learned from the experience. “I do think that we are needing to pause and listen and step back and say, ‘What of the process we’ve used up to this time is not working?’” said Torres. “I think she’s willing to listen to that, and retool, and modify, and listen to what this board wants her to do.”

Carstarphen said she realizes that in Austin the process can be as important as the outcome.

“In a community like this, the cultural context is one that desires more process,” Carstarphen said. “If we could have negotiated all those things on the front end, which were not possible before, maybe things would have been a little less intense and hard on everyone.”

“I love my job here,” she said. “My goal is to ensure our district holds up its end for this city — this great city that has an international reputation for being a leader in everything from green energy to technology. And AISD must do its part to keep this city strong. No matter the distraction, I think it’s impossible for anything, or anyone, or any statute to shake me off of that focus.”

Statesman.com (12/16/13) – Austin schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen praised for graduation rate, finances

Torres praised Carstarphen and her team for maintaining a sound budget despite reductions in state funding to public education.

“She has led the word to manage our resources wisely with a strategic, long-term view and, as a result, we have received high bond ratings over the past three years,” Torres read from the statement. Further, as an example of her personal commitment and understanding of these financial constraints on the district, for two consecutive years, she has declined the equivalent of a 3 percent salary increase.”

Carstarphen was eligible for a payout equivalent to 1.5 percent of her $283,412 annual salary this year, but, as in past years, she declined the increase.

Absent from the statement, which was included in at least the past two years, was mention of extending the superintendent’s contract. It is set to expire in June 2015. The board decided not to extend her contract, at least for now, but could do so at a later date.

Austin American Statesmen (02/16/11)Texas Rep. Stefani Carter says Beaumont schools chief is highest-paid in state

The $283,412 annual salary of Austin district chief Meria Carstarphen ranks No. 10 on the list. That makes her per-pupil pay about $3 a year.

In the Austin school district, which has about 86,000 students, Carstarphen’s benefits include $12,000 a year for automobile allowance, a $15,000 annuity and $5,377 in health insurance. The district also pays $9,953 per year for a long-term disability insurance policy and $1,046 for a life insurance policy. And in August, Carstarphen was awarded a bonus of $41,500 for meeting performance goals for the 2009-10 school year. (She has waived any bonus tied to this school year.)

Her total: about $368,000.

Austin Chamber (03/22/10) – Austin ISD Superintendent Says “Get on Board”

One question Thevenot asked Carstarphen: How much additional investment in these schools is necessary and how much can you afford given the district’s tenuous financial situation?

Her answer:

In education, particularly public education, we are the pack rats of ineffective programs. We have more resources than we think we have. We let the politics [keep driving] things, even if it drives us into a deficit.

I’ve pushed very hard all year long, and plan to keep pushing, that we should invest in those things that work and let everything else fall off the plate … And so we are, we’re working with the citizens budget review committee, to look at all the programs in the district to create the right criteria to sunset them if we can’t prove they make a difference. And that’s going to be controversial. I hope you’ll follow us a year from now when we start doing that. It’s going to be a hot time. [Emphasis added]

Texas Classrooms First (01/21/13) – AISD six-figure earners increase 63 percent in past five years

The number of six-figure salary earners in the Austin school district has jumped 63 percent in the past five years, at a time when the district has had to tighten its belt and cut jobs, an analysis by the American-Statesman has found.

Seventy of the district’s 11,973 employees make more than $100,000. That’s up from 56 in 2011-12. In the 2007-08 school year, 43 of the district’s 11,571 employees earned at least that amount.

During the same five-year time period, the operations budget has dropped 16 percent, from $862.9 million to $724.2 million. And the total number of employees has barely budged, due largely to state funding cuts over the past two years that prompted the district to eliminate more than 1,100 budgeted positions in 2011.

One of the largest gains in highly-paid jobs occurred this school year, increasing 25 percent over the 2011-12 school year. Much of that growth was driven by pay raises. While employee salaries were frozen in 2010-11 and 2011-12, this year’s budget included a one-time payment to all employees equivalent to a three percent raise. That pushed 20 additional employees — nearly all principals — above the $100,000 mark.

The employees who earn the most are largely members of Superintendent Meria Carstarphen’s senior cabinet, who advise her on administrative decisions. Most of the other six-figure earners are executive directors, directors or middle and high school principals. The salaries for the 12-member cabinet, excluding the superintendent, range from $115,360 to $204,970.

The average teacher base salary is $55,137. [Note – this is approximately $6,000 less than the average teacher salary in APS.]

Forefront Austin (no date) – About Dr. Meria Joel Carstarphen (Q&A excerpts)

What was the “aha” moment that got you started in your current career?

As a child growing up in Selma, Alabama, infamous for its role in the Voting Rights March of the 1960s, I was exposed very early on to the civil rights struggles of this country. One of the most valuable lessons I learned is the value of education in uplifting people. Education is the great equalizer and I feel that there is no higher calling than being an educator and ensuring that all children—regardless of race or class—receive a quality education.

What is the most rewarding thing about working in public/social service?

As Superintendent, the most rewarding part of my job is seeing students graduate. Graduation is definitely the best part of my job. I personally shake the hand of each student who graduates in AISD. It is such an accomplishment, particularly when there are so many things that can derail even their best efforts.

Austin Woman (2012) – Q&A with Carstarphen (excerpts)

Austin Woman: Let’s start with growing up in Selma. Who were some of your mentors as a young adult?

Dr. Meria Carstarphen: It was really a combination of people. I spent every day with people who fought for the simple right to vote. While there was this huge national movement going on, people in our town were regular folks, living day to day. Growing up in that environment taught me a lesson: When individuals, young or old, are educated about an issue—in this case, civil rights—they literally can change their lives. Watching my father and mother raise a family in that environment while constantly reinforcing the value of a quality education inspired and motivated me to be where I am today. It is with that spirit that I do my work in Austin, and how I will do my work for children in education for the rest of my life.

AW: Talk about some of the major issues in education today.

MC: Our demographics are changing, not only in the state, but throughout our region and in Austin. For example, in AISD, two out of three students come from economically disadvantaged families, one in three is an English-language learner and one in 10 is in special education. Just 10 years ago, these statistics were dramatically different. The district had a more homogenous school community. Now, there is a head-to-head clash between what is happening with funding for education at the state level and the needs of students who are coming in to a large, urban school district without the resources it needs to keep pace with how quickly things are moving.

AW: What is the solution to these challenges?

MC: We are looking at a lot of different things. The first step is to be brutally honest about the context in which we are working. As demographics have changed, we have to change our models. The country has more interest in choices, and parents want districts to offer a portfolio of options for academic and educational programs. …We have to ask tough questions and remain focused on moving forward and reforming how we do business. School systems must keep up with a rapidly evolving economy and ever-changing technologies to serve the needs of all children.

AW: What do you suggest for more parental involvement in education?

MC: Parents are our partners and we welcome them to be involved with their children’s education from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. In school districts across the country, most parents are involved at the beginning but become less involved when their children leave elementary school. Students really need social and emotional support during middle school and they need a seamless environment between home and school. Parents are an important part of their children’s academic and school experiences…

I think there is a lot to like here. She is not afraid of controversy, is data driven, is intelligent and very energetic. Oh, and most importantly, she is focused on educational outcomes.

I think the Board has done a remarkable job is selecting our new superintendent.

Well done.

[Follow me on Twitter @Financial_Decon]





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