With Atlanta Public Schools (APS) back in session in just 24 days, the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods heard last night from two of the system’s recently-elected board of education members as well as a blogger who intensely follows the district.
School Board members Cynthia Briscoe Brown (Dist. 8) and Jason Esteves (Dist. 9) spoke about their hopes for APS under the leadership of new Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, even as the cheating scandal that rocked the system continues to make headlines.
“APS is building the plane while we’re flying it,” Brown said about rebuilding the reputation, trust and educational standards for the system. “I believe Meria Carstarphen is the right person at the right time. We need her passion, confidence and abilities.”
Brown said changes are happening almost daily at APS headquarters as Carstarphen reorganizes, while the school board is already making efforts to be more transparent and accessible to the community.
It was Esteves who pushed for live streaming of the school board meetings so parents and interested parties could watch the meetings from their computers or phones, while Brown said board members are trying to meet teachers, cafeteria workers, school bus drivers and everyone who works for APS.
“When we went to meet the bus drivers and workers who had stayed overnight in their buses or at schools to protect the children during the ice storm, it was telling that none of them had ever met a school board member,” Brown said.
Brown said she’s also encouraged by the City of Atlanta and APS sitting down to work out the controversy over the $19 million debt owed the school district by the Atlanta BeltLine. APS agreed to give up some of its property tax dollars to help build the BeltLine with a promise of fixed annual repayments. The BeltLine has yet to make a payment and their have been threats of lawsuits and plenty of rhetoric from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and former Superintendent Erroll B. Davis.
“We are working to get the deciders to the table,” said Brown, who also sits on the Atlanta BeltLine board. “We need to get people behaving like reasonable adults. APS doesn’t want to tank the BeltLine. This is not about choosing the BeltLine or the children.”
Esteves said he hopes that four years from now that APS can be mentioned without being followed by the words “cheating scandal.” One of his big goals is to clear up APS’s unfunded pension liability of $550 million.
“We are deep in the hole,” Esteves said frankly.
Esteves said 85 percent of APS’s liability is with retirees, so raising money to fund the pension plans and fulfill its promise is a priority. “This problem started 30 years ago and was ignored for decades. The can was kicked down the road, but we have to deal with it now.”
Robert Stockwell, a CPA who runs the Financial Deconstruction blog, said he’s encouraged by Carstarphen’s hiring and described her energy as “non-stop go.”
“I’ve spoken with her several times now and she is very focused on results,” Stockwell said.
Stockwell said a focus on absenteeism will be one of Carstarphen’s tentpoles just as it was in her previous job as superintendent in Austin, Texas. “She says the first step in making a better system is getting kids to the classroom,” he said.
Carstarphen herself will address the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods at its Aug. 14 meeting.