Kirkwood’s School Board member changes mind about superintendent, votes against contractMichelle Olympiadis
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This story has been updated.
Michelle Olympiadis was a fan of Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen when she ran for School Board last year.
Decaturish asked her whether she was satisfied with the superintendent hired in 2014 and if she thought APS should move in a different direction.
Olympiadis praised her at the time, calling her “a transformational leader who immediately recognized that change at many levels is needed, and who has made incremental progress in positively moving our trajectory.”
Fast forward to June 2018 and Olympiadis has a decidedly different opinion of Carstarphen. She joined two other School Board members on June 4 in a vote against the superintendent’s contract, which was approved 6-3 and extends the contract to 2020, the first time Carstarphen’s contract was approved without a unanimous vote.
So what changed?
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In an interview on Tuesday, Olympiadis cited several concerns, but the two she kept referring to the most were the school system’s master facilities plan, which she claims is out of date (school officials dispute this), and lack of a formal communication policy.
“It’s foundational things that need to be addressed,” she said. “I feel all we are addressing is the easy fixes.”
Carstarphen would dispute that the fixes have been easy. When she was hired in 2014, she inherited a school system rocked to its foundations by a cheating scandal. She replaced a superintendent, Erroll Davis, who took over for former superintendent Beverly Hall who resigned and was later indicted for her role in the cheating scandal.
Davis, who on the front end acknowledged he wasn’t in the job for the long-haul, closed schools and fired administrators. His decisions were not popular. Carstarphen’s hiring was seen as a new chapter in the history of APS, putting the school system in the hands of a bright and hard-working leader determined to make people believe in the school system again. Whether she’s done that is open to debate. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, she put together a strategic plan for schools and also ruffled feathers by outsourcing schools to charter operators and closing others.
The superintendent brushed off the vote. The way she sees it, 6-3 is a mandate.
“APS is a very heavy lift,” she said. “I’m not frustrated. I’m still excited. I’m still very passionate about what we do.”
Other board members and the superintendent sounded surprised by Olympiadis’ concerns. The School Board held a retreat about facilities last week and approved a five year facilities plan on June 4. Fellow board member Cynthia Briscoe Brown, who chairs the policy review committee, said she is not opposed to a communications policy for the district, but said she’s never been asked to pursue one. She said that Olympiadis appears to be confused about the job of the School Board and the job of the superintendent.
“Our job is governance,” Brown said. “The superintendent’s job is to carry out the policy direction and vision of the board.”
Olympiadis still had kind words for the superintendent, her vote against extending her contract notwithstanding.
“I think she’s incredibly smart. I think she’s very talented. I think she’s done a lot of things the right way,” she said. “That doesn’t address the foundational systemic processes that need to be in place to have the district run well.”
She conceded that many of the problems APS is facing predate Carstarphen. Olympiadis said if the facilities master plan isn’t updated, it could result in another controversial redistricting. She said she didn’t realize how dated some of the information APS is using was until she got elected.
“Once I understood that we were still working with information that was 10 years old and has not been updated, I was shocked,” she said.
Carstarphen said the facilities plan is up to date and that Olympiadis’ claim that it isn’t is incorrect.
“In the six months she’s been on the Board, Olympiadis been extensively briefed on 5 year [Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for school construction],” she said. “In that plan, I have led and secured significant investment in the Grady Cluster for its facilities, including an annex for Morningside Elementary School, the reopening of Howard Middle School, the construction of the athletic complex for the Grady Cluster at the Walden field and renovations to Grady High School before her tenure.”
Communication was another issue that Olympiadis was concerned about. As an example, she discussed an app APS uses to communicate problems with school buses to parents.
“I receive bus notices for buses that aren’t even in my area,” she said. “When I have bus issues that impact my children, I’m not receiving that communication from APS. I am receiving that from a [group] text from parents who know what’s going on.”
According to the AJC, each school board member had different reasons for opposing the superintendent’s contract extension. Erika Mitchell, another new board member, told the AJC that her constituents in west Atlanta were not happy with the current state of the district. The other board member who voted against it, Leslie Grant, said while she is “extremely pleased” with what APS has accomplished under Carstarphen, ” we have to think about long-term leadership.”
So what does this mean for the relationship between the board and superintendent going forward?
Olympiadis said she plans to continue working with her.
“I will continue to be supportive of her because her contract has been extended for another year,” she said. “Dr. Carstarphen does a lot of things very well. There’s lack of systemic processes. The fiscal responsibility of the district is not being addressed. We’re going to have some tough challenges.”
Brown said people shouldn’t read too much into one vote.
“I think this is one vote,” she said. “I don’t think this is a symptom of a deeply divided board. I just don’t see that. We certainly have our disagreements. We come from nine different perspectives. I think that’s healthy. I think we should have a cross section of the city. I don’t think we should agree all the time.”
School Board Chair Jason Esteves said it’s up to the board to address Olympiadis’ concerns.
“I think as far as the superintendent goes, we just had her evaluation yesterday and by all accounts the board believes that she met or exceeded the expectations we have of her,” he said. “There are board members, particularly Michelle, who believe there are some things that need to happen like facilities planning and communications and engagement, and a lot of those involve policy and strategic planning that involves the board. It’s the board’s responsibility to step up and do that work.”
Carstarphen said she’s focused on the only thing that matters.
“I’ve got to keep my eye on what’s important, and that’s Atlanta’s kids. They’ve been undeserved,” she said. “I feel like I got a vote that says keep doing that, hands down, and that’s what we’ll do.”
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