The Austin school board voted 7-2 to extend an employment contract with Dr. Meria Carstarphen, the superintendent who oversees the education of more than 86,000 Austin children in the largest school district in Central Texas. If Carstarphen fulfills her contract to June 2015, she will have served seven years at the helm of AISD, a term twice as long as the average tenure of an urban superintendent. Carstarphen earns $283,412 per year.
In a sweeping assessment of Carstarphen's performance, school board president Mark Williams said she has "shown courage" and the board "continues to believe that she is the right person to lead Austin ISD." Williams' annual evaluation was overwhelmingly positive, although it did highlight several areas of weakness. Those included a need for AISD to "improve its community engagement efforts."
Williams' evaluation also drew attention to "a significant achievement gap" among white students and their Hispanic and African-American counterparts. For example, Texas Education Agency data shows almost 90 percent of white high school seniors graduated in the 2010-11 school year, compared to 72 percent of African American students, a disparity even larger than the statewide gap of 5.5 percent.
Some community members -- still unhappy with the district for hiring South Texas charter school operator IDEA Public Schools to run an in-district school at Allan Elementary -- called on the board to wait until after the November elections to vote on the contract extension.
"A lot of people have raised questions about the decision-making style of this board leadership," said Mike Corwin, an East Austin parent of a child in first grade. "Frankly, if they push this through tonight, all those questions come right back to the forefront."
At least three and as many as four of AISD's nine school board members will be replaced after the election. Some candidates have been openly critical of Dr. Carstarphen's educational overhauls, specifically the in-district charter school and how quickly it was implemented. School board president Mark Williams said the new board members "won't know enough" when they're sworn-in to evaluate Carstarphen's performance.
"It's not like they'll get on the board and be able to extend the superintendent's contract. They won't have been around a year. They haven't been a part of the evaluation system," Williams said from the dais.
But other board members weren't convinced of the urgency of Dr. Carstarphen's contract renewal.
"I'm not quite sure why we are extending a contract that has 18 months [left] on it," said Trustee Robert Schneider, whose district covers southwest Austin. Schneider's seat is not among those up for grabs in this election. "I would think the best thing we could do is leave the contract question on the table at the moment." Schneider and at-large trustee Annette LoVoi voted against the contract extension. LoVoi is stepping down after voters elect her successor next month.
Much of the local business community supports Dr. Carstarphen, according to Austin Chamber of Commerce vice president Drew Scheberle. The chamber's 25,000 members are confident the city's young people are being prepared for careers and college "because you have one of the best superintendents in the country," Scheberle said during the public comment portion of the school board meeting. The chamber has been largely supportive of Carstarphen's educational overhauls and her ardent leadership style.
Carstarphen could still quit before her contract expires, but only within a narrow window of time after school lets out for summer and no sooner than 45 days before classes resume. With permission of the board, she could leave at any time.