Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen renewed her blistering criticisms of tax breaks on luxury developments — while acknowledging such stances may have cost her the job — at an Oct. 10 meeting where the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods agreed to join her advocacy.

Carstarphen’s Buckhead appearance came a month after the Atlanta Board of Education controversially and still somewhat mysteriously said it had decided not to extend her contract. That makes for an awkward situation where she has about eight more months to serve under her current contract and is actively stumping for the board to reverse its decision. The BCN crowd was supportive, with one audience member suggesting Buckhead could end local tax abatements by becoming its own city, adding, “You could be the superintendent of Buckhead.”

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. (Special)

Carstarphen, who was hired in 2014 to clean up APS after its test-cheating scandal, did not endorse that idea, but made it clear she wants to keep the job. She said in a post-meeting interview that she was “called here by God” to run APS and that she knows “the work isn’t done.”

She encouraged the crowd, gathered at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, to contact school board members about the contract. She emphasized that her sometimes controversial moves, including challenging Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration on property tax breaks, came out of board-approved strategies.

“I’m very encouraged by the public support for continuing the work of APS,” Carstarphen told the crowd when asked about her job contract. “I do admit that we ruffled some feathers, or I ruffled some feathers, by carrying – and just so everyone knows — the directive of the board. I did not go off rogue….This was supposed to be a team deal. And I understand that it became very personalized, in part, to me.”

On the subject of tax breaks, Carstarphen fundamentally repeated the theme of her appearance at a BCN meeting almost exactly one year earlier, where she blasted the concept of tax incentives for redevelopment of downtown’s Gulch area, saying the loss of revenue could devastate APS. This time, she came armed with more data and more examples, in part due to tax breaks becoming more controversial and scrutinized since then. Among her local examples was a tax incentive for a luxury apartment project at 99 West Paces Ferry Road, where a trade-off was “affordable” units for which a single person making nearly $120,000 a year would be eligible.

“You need to get organized and informed,” Carstarphen said about the city’s main tax-break-granting entities, Invest Atlanta and the Development Authority of Fulton County. “We should probably start a little task force or something.”

BCN Chair Mary Norwood immediately said she would put out a call for volunteers for such a task force to the group’s member neighborhood associations. Norwood later said her response was spontaneous and time would tell how such a group would function. Carstarphen, after the meeting, expressed happiness with the idea of working with a BCN sub-group. “I’m so with that. Absolutely,” she said.

Mary Norwood, left, chair of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, poses with APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen after the Oct. 10 BCN meeting. (John Ruch)

Fighting for the job

Carstarphen would not directly answer why she chose to appear at the BCN at this time or for a scheduled Sept. 10 appearance she canceled in the wake of the Sept. 9 contract announcement. Norwood later said she had invited Carstarphen to speak about tax breaks after meeting with her in July, and that the September BCN appearance cancelation was due to schedule conflicts. Intentionally or not, at the October meeting a defense of Carstarphen’s job was a major theme for a friendly crowd in a neighborhood that, she said, pays the “lion’s share” of APS taxes.

Known for a bold and charismatic personality, Carstarphen has attracted friends and foes with such moves as outsourcing some school administrations to charter operators. At the BCN, she touted such achievements as raising graduation rates at Buckhead’s North Atlanta High School from around 75% to over 91%; she did not mention that the state says that is down slightly from last year’s rate, or that APS’s system-wide graduation rate decreased 2 percentage points to 77.9%, lagging the statewide average in a point that rankles some critics. APS spokesperson Ian Smith later emphasized that a handout from Carstarphen depicted recent North Atlanta High graduation rates over time, though as Carstarphen noted during the meeting, it was difficult or impossible to read in its printed-out format.

But Carstarphen remains popular among the public, according to a recent poll and petition effort she mentioned, and drew frequent applause from the BCN board members and audience. In an interview after the meeting, she elaborated on her fight for her job.

“I am genuinely touched and humbled by people understanding, at least the public and parents understanding, and black [and] white, men and women, in school [and] out of school… what we were trying to do,” she said. “And I also understand we did a lot of controversial work. We touched a lot of communities. We moved a lot of people around. We changed a lot of programming…. But it does seem clear that there’s a lot of public support for us seeing the whole thing through, if allowed.”

She spoke forcefully about a sense of personal mission. “I was called here by God,” she said. “The needs of Atlanta also matched my heart and the things I believed in, and areas I’ve been able to make a difference in, and I know the work isn’t done.”

Carstarphen said she respects the school board’s authority, but added, “I just know my truth about what Atlanta Public Schools is…. I made it clear that I did not think this was the right direction at this time and that anything that we were doing could be resolved…to keep moving the quality work forward.”

She said that, as a native of Selma, Ala., she understands Deep South politics and “racial tensions” that can drive decisions. She called her job situation part of an “adult agenda” that she contrasted with the “child agenda” of APS.

“The political nature of the city, the adult agendas, are real,” she said. “And I push hard, and I mean hard, to stay on the agenda and the mission that is child-centered, given the role that we play in this city… [because] after the cheating scandal, after what everyone’s been through, I think that it is imperative that the child agenda, the education agenda, be the North Star.”

The tax break debate

Carstarphen is one of many critics of tax abatements and incentives that she says are draining APS of more than $1.5 billion in revenue over decades, forcing homeowners to shoulder most of the burden. She especially targets “tax allocation districts,” where large projects are funded by bonds, on the gamble that future development will pay off the debt. The theory of such deals is that they will underwrite development that is otherwise not financially feasible and will ultimately generate even more property taxes. But in practice, critics say, they are going to some of the city’s hottest real estate or, in some cases, not paying off as expected.

Smith, the APS spokesperson, later emphasized that Carstarphen “wasn’t referencing the city or current city administration or challenging Mayor Bottoms’ administration on property tax breaks.” In the meeting, Carstarphen never mentioned Bottoms by name, but did refer broadly to “the city” failing to properly manage the existing five TADs and seeking to expand or multiply them for the Gulch.

Joining Carstarphen at the meeting were several other well-known tax break critics: Julian Bene of Red Light the Gulch; Invest Atlanta board member Bill Bozarth; and Tom Tidwell, a former BCN chair who now serves on Fulton’s Development Authority board, appointed by Fulton Commissioner Lee Morris as a close reviewer of the agency’s deals.

Carstarphen speaks at the Oct. 10 Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods meeting. (John Ruch)

Carstarphen herself briefly served on the Fulton Development Authority board, also as a Morris appointee, and said it “dramatically improved” transparency and accessibility partly due to her advocacy.

Carstarphen said APS must “bring the pressure down” on its revenue losses from tax breaks, which she said increased 40% in the last fiscal year. She laid out four basic reform tactics: increasing commercial property tax assessments; killing unnecessary abatements on projects that would happen without them; end or otherwise rein in TADs that are underperforming; and sending any savings to taxpayers rather than spending the money elsewhere.

How tax abatement amounts on specific buildings are calculated remains an unexplained “black box,” Carstarphen said. Such projects should be required to demonstrate they would not be built without the abatement and to demonstrate that they provide a “public good” in exchange. She agreed with resident Amber Connor’s criticism that one of those public goods, allegedly affordable housing, often turns out to be priced differently or eliminated with a loophole.

Carstaphen likened tax abatements to a grocery store offering basic food for free instead of cutting a deal on an unusual item that shoppers need to be enticed into buying, like “jalapeño cashews dipped in chocolate.”

“We seem to give away the bread,” she said.

Having two tax-break-granting entities is “too much,” she said in another reform idea. Bozarth said General Assembly legislation to give a city development authority precedent over a county one has been unsuccessful in the past, but will be refiled next year.

“What we know is,” Carstarphen said, “there’s more than enough money to do all the things we want to do if everybody’s paying their fair share.”

Updates: This story has been changed to alter a characterization of Tom Tidwell’s role on the Development Authority of Fulton County board; to add follow-up quotes from Atlanta Public Schools and Mary Norwood; and to clarify that the Atlanta Board of Education’s decision on Carstarphen’s contract on Sept. 9 was an announcement rather than a vote.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.