Monday, March 23, 2009

Austin school board to vote on superintendent hire

By Laura Heinauer
Sunday, March 22, 2009

Austin school district residents have shared their concerns about Meria Carstarphen, the sole finalist to be the next superintendent: She's young. Who knows how long she'll stay? And she hasn't worked in a Texas school district or one with demographics similar to Austin's.

Carstarphen, currently schools chief in St. Paul, Minn., shared her concerns at a forum at Travis High School in South Austin recently. "There's a lot of energy about wanting schools to work. ... (But) for all the advocacy, it feels fractured," she said. "It feels like there are a lot of individual interests. It feels like we haven't really had a conversation about what's best for the whole community."

Despite initial hesitations, many Austin education advocates say they are ready to work with Carstarphen. On Monday, the school board — which was unanimous in naming her the sole finalist last month — will take a final vote on her hiring and will have one last chance to hear residents out.

In response to the criticism, Carstarphen, 39, has said that ambition has driven her to achieve at such a relatively young age and that her experience with English language learners and the redesigning of schools and systems to make them run more efficiently is an asset.

She has said that she intends to stay as long as the board wants her and called Austin the kind of city "that no matter who you are, you can find your place."

Her words have rung hollow for some in St. Paulwho say they are disappointed that Carstarphen stayed for less than three years, though few wanted to speak about it on the record. Since the announcement that her departure was probably imminent, at least two foundations have suspended discussions on partnerships with the St. Paul district.

"Right now, the last thing St. Paul needs is another honeymoon with another new superintendent, national or local, telling us the answer is some particular curriculum or some particular method of teaching," Ted Kolderie, a senior associate of an education policy group in Minnesota, wrote in an opinion piece in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

In Austin, many seem smitten with the idea of change that a new leader could bring. During a recent community meeting, many people clapped and cheered after hearing Carstarphen's plans to streamline district administration and address achievement gaps among students.

During the superintendent search process, numerous e-mails were sent to Austin board members urging them to select a Hispanic.

However, several people who expressed concerns earlier — particularly those who were disappointed with a process that resulted in only one finalist — now say they would be ready to work with Carstarphen. The names of other candidates that the board considered were not confirmed by the district.

"I think the (board's decision to have a closed process) made it harder on her," said Paul Saldaña, who owns a local public relations firm and is a past chairman of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "It's no secret that we have a unique set of challenges, this being Austin. But I think at this point, everybody has come to the terms with her being the finalist and we're ready to move forward."

One challenge that Carstarphen could face is how to deal with the state on school finance and accountability. If results of state achievement tests don't improve, Pearce Middle School and Reagan High School could be closed by the state — as Johnston High School was last year. Students started taking the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in February; the district could get preliminary results in June.

Carstarphen said she thinks the testing systems are "pretty heavy-handed here in Texas" but that she was relieved after a meeting with state education Commissioner Robert Scott.

"He was very open, excited to hear my ideas," she said.

Another challenge for Carstarphen could be the transition. She has said that she intends to start this spring. Outgoing Superintendent Pat Forgione has said that he would stay until June.

Austin is looking for ways to cut costs while also looking for ways to spend federal stimulus money, an exercise that will have a major impact on the 2009-10 budget.

Louis Malfaro, president of Education Austin, which represents about 4,000 Austin school employees, said he is eager to work with Carstarphen.

"We think there is money and there is an uncapped reservoir of teacher knowledge and expertise that could really be used creatively to improve schools," Malfaro said.

Tom Conlon, a St. Paul school board member, said Carstarphen isn't scared of making changes — whether it's closing schools or changing long-held practices.

"If (Austin trustees) say, 'We want to reform, and we'll support her,' then I think the sky's the limit," Conlon said. "But if there's a lot of resistance, or the board says they want reform and then back off and leave her hanging out to dry, that's where there will be conflict."

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