The Austin School Board Thursday named St. Paul superintendent Meria Carstarphen as its only finalist for the top job in a district with more than twice as many students as St. Paul.
By law, the Austin board can't offer Carstarphen the job for three more weeks. But district leaders say they're committed to seeing the process through and forcing St. Paul to find a new leader.
Shortly before Austin trustees unanimously approved her as its only finalist for the top job, they took time to speak glowingly of their 38-year-old candidate.
"I believe we've found an extraordinary, unique and reform-minded superintendent leader in Dr. Meria Carstarphen," said board president Mark Williams. "It is abundantly clear to me that Dr. Carstarphen is best-qualified to come to Austin and go to work on behalf of all Austin students," he added, in a statement.
After the meeting and a press conference, Carstarphen visited one of the elementary schools she'll soon oversee.
The warm welcome there from the kids comes as Austin's current superintendent, Pat Forgione, continues his long good-bye after ten years in that job. And because Castarphen has only been in St. Paul for three years, Austin media were quick to ask her how long she plans to stay, during a news conference this morning.
Her answer? As long as she needs to.
"This opportunity came along at a time where I did not have a renewed contract at my district at this very moment," she added. "And so, I did explore this opportunity and found it would be a great match."
Austin media had also been reporting that the board was seeking a Hispanic candidate, given nearly 6 in 10 Austin students (58%) are Hispanic. But the board went with a person who will become the district's first-ever African American and first-ever female superintendent.
Carstarphen tried to send a message to the Hispanic community when she delivered some of her remarks in Spanish: "I want to tell you that all of the students, all of the children, are now also my children," she said. "The future of our children is the future of the entire community."
Carstarphen is leaving a district facing declining enrollment, a big budget deficit, and which is in the middle of an expansive overhaul called Large-Scale System Change. That System Change is likely to include school closures, and school board member Elona Street-Stewart says the process will continue.
"That, I believe, will be the legacy," Street-Steward said. "That she was opening the doors for us to really look at change and know it was necessary."
"She will not have been here to be able to complete that chapter, but I think she's positioned us so that we're going to go ahead with that," said Stewart.
Some parents, though, think the departure will stymie the effort. Susan Wright, a PTA mom with two children in the district, said she thought Carstarphen started poorly and mishandled the closing of her neighborhood school Homecroft.
But since then, Wright says she's gotten on board with the system change process.
"I thought that would be, as a parent and a taxpayer, that was the moment I was going to be able to judge her," said Wright. "You've had a huge misstep, but you're doing something right, and now before you fire out this new program, you're outta here."
"You can't judge one way or another."
Back in Austin, where she plans to continue visiting schools on Friday, Carstarphen said she thinks she's leaving St. Paul poised to continue its changes: "All of those things are in place for people to take it to the next level."
Carstarphen also said she'll finish the school year in St. Paul, which runs through June. Her next three weeks, though, will include negotiations and public meetings in Texas before the Austin board can formally offer her the job.
The Austin school board will take formal action on Carstarphen's appointment following a required 21-day waiting period, which ends on March 19. Terms of her contract, including her start date, are yet to be determined.
Carstarphen is sure to get a pay increase, though. She's heading to a much larger district. Also, Austin's current superintendent, Pat Forgione, will earn $284,563 this year. Carstarphen's current salary in St. Paul is about $195,000.