Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen continued her call for scrutiny of tax breaks for luxury developments at a Nov. 20 community meeting where she praised the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods for launching a new tax-reform task force she inspired. Tax breaks can contribute to equity gaps in the district and city, she said.

Facing a controversial ouster from APS, Carstarphen spoke at the Northwest Community Alliance meeting with the trademark force and charisma that has many residents speculating – or wishing – that if she can’t stay, she might seek the top job at the DeKalb County School District or run for an elected office. Carstarphen did not address her job or future in her presentation. In an interview, she said she hasn’t thought about life beyond APS, but also did not rule out a career in politics when asked.

“I am fully focused on making sure I run APS well, right? … It’s a handful,” Carstarphen said when asked whether she is interested in running for office, describing several ways the district has kept her busy. “…But my focus right now is still APS. I haven’t thought about anything for next steps and I’ll do that when I get a little break over the holidays and start thinking about what’s next.”

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen talks about the district’s progress and the impacts of tax breaks on revenue and equity at the Nov. 20 meeting of the Northwest Community Alliance at Northside Church of God. (John Ruch)

Running APS requires major tax revenue. At the NCA meeting, held at the Northside Church of God, Carstarphen blasted tax abatements and other deals that she says allow high-end commercial properties to avoid paying tens of millions of dollars a year to APS. The presentation was similar to one she gave at the Oct. 10 BCN meeting, where her off-the-cuff suggestion for a neighborhood  tax-abatement reform “task force” was taken up quickly by the organization and already has produced draft recommendations for some reforms.

BCN Chair Mary Norwood also spoke at the NCA meeting, giving a brief overview of her group and its work. “Meria fired us up, and after she left, we had members who wanted to start a task force,” said Norwood about Carstarphen’s Oct. 10 appearance, and describing the task force’s initial report as “shattering.”

After the NCA meeting, Carstarphen said she had not been aware that the BCN followed through on the task force idea, and responded positively.

“Good for them,” she said. “They seem to be thoughtful. Maybe something good can come out of it. [Or] at least some better understanding.”

In her presentation, Carstarphen – assisted by APS Chief Financial Officer Lisa Bracken – combined some number-crunching on tax breaks with critiques of how they can widen equity gaps in the district and the entire city.

Carstarphen and Bracken estimate that tax abatements and tax allocation districts – major projects like Atlantic Station that essentially get to spend their property-tax money on themselves to theoretically speed development – are costing APS $92.2 million in “uncollectable” revenue this fiscal year alone. And that number has been climbing annually.

The property tax burden partly shifts to residential property owners. Carstarphen said APS estimates this fiscal year’s uncollectable revenue from such breaks amounts to about $385 in taxes on a $300,000 house.

“It’s just unsustainable,” said Carstarphen.

She called out some specific controversial examples of tax abatements on luxury developments, including the 99 West Paces Ferry Road project in Buckhead. That luxury apartment and retail project received a $3.5 million tax abatement from the Development Authority of Fulton County in a deal where the developer promised to offer “affordable” units that could go to a single person making nearly $120,000 a year.

Critics say such projects don’t pass the “but-for” test, meaning they likely would be built without tax breaks as an incentive. Among those question such deals is Development Authority member Tom Tidwell, a Buckhead resident who attended the NCA meeting.

“I want Buckhead to get the boutique hotel that somebody wants to have happen,” said Carstarphen, who briefly served on the Development Authority as well last year. “…But when we look at where the need is, would these things meet a ‘but-for’ test?”

She said APS, like many other districts, is facing a “wickedly large” student achievement gap involving racial and socioeconomic disparities. APS needs revenue to address those challenges, she said, and so do neighborhoods that need redevelopment incentives and wrap-around services. She said that members of families in her district’s majority African American and majority low-income schools ask, “‘If we have to give away the [tax] money, can you invest in our neighborhood?’”

Boosting graduation rates helps the entire economy, Carstarphen said.

“We grow the pie in my world by having a kid graduate with a diploma,” she said. “When you graduate [a student] with a high-school diploma, it actually adds to the economic base of your city. When they drop out, it doesn’t,” she said.

Carstarphen also reviewed her progress in boosting that graduation rate and other metrics since she took the job in 2014 in the wake of an infamous test-cheating scandal. The Atlanta Board of Education decided earlier this year not to extend her contract, which runs through June 2020, in a move that sparked controversy. Carstarphen has made it clear that she wants to remain in the job, saying in a previous interview that she was “called here by God” to run APS and that she knows “the work isn’t done.”

At the NCA presentation, Carstarphen did not discuss her contract and spoke about the school board only to briefly praise member Nancy Meister, a Buckhead resident who was in the audience. Asked about her contract in an interview, Carstarphen referred questions to the school board and its superintendent search webpage.

Norwood, who called herself “a big Meria fan,” has experience in politics and city leadership as a former City Council member and two-time mayoral candidate. Asked about the idea of Carstarphen running for office, Norwood said, “If she wants to run for anything else – anyone who has the interest and the skills and the priorities, go for it.”

As for the possibility of the school board changing its mind about Carstarphen’s ouster, Norwood noted the “strong group of people” who urged the board to extend the contract, such as U.S. Rep. John Lewis and former mayors Sam Massell, Shirley Franklin and Andrew Young. Norwood said her “concern for the city” is that the school board will have a challenge in finding candidates for the superintendent position when they see Carstarphen’s contract situation.

Norwood referred to her political experience in her presentation, saying that having the BCN chair position is better than her “moniker of ‘defeated candidate’” and explaining how she runs the group with similarities to a city council. However, she showed no immediate interest in a political future when asked in an interview. “We have an administration [and] I’m busy doing what I’m doing,” she said.

Carstarphen is scheduled to return to Buckhead on Dec. 10 for a community meeting with North Atlanta Parents for Public Schools.

John Ruch

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