Lisa Herring, the finalist for the Atlanta Public Schools superintendent position, said she has more to learn in response to questions from about 120 participants in a May 5 virtual town hall for the North Atlanta Cluster.

Herring’s answers on such topics as charter schools and Title I funding were lengthy, but specifics were few, as she sidestepped taking controversial stances and deferred to the Atlanta Board of Education and its strategic plan.

Lisa Herring, the finalist for the Atlanta Public Schools superintendent position, speaks during a May 5 virtual town hall for the North Atlanta Cluster.

One controversy she did address specifically was her transition coming in the midst of the pandemic, with its district closure and virtual processes. “I understand that there are still questions tied to making a transition during  a pandemic and how individuals might have angst — could and should have angst — and questions,” she said. “…“I’ve said, I sometimes find myself pushing in as if I want to push in and jump through the computer screen, and that’s all we have right now. There will be more opportunities.”

Herring was picked by the school board to replace current Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, whose contract ends June 30. Herring is scheduled to take over July 1, but will be “onboard” before that under a separate transition contract, according to school board chair Jason Esteves. He joined in the meeting along with Buckhead-area board members Cynthia Briscoe Brown and Nancy Meister.

Pandemic issues loomed large among audience questions. Asked about the possibility of in-person classes resuming in the fall, Herring said the idea was “to be in a space of preparedness” based on expert public health advice. On the likelihood of budget cuts, she said, “To be detailed at this point would be irresponsible.”

On the topic of dual-language immersion programs, Herring raised a broader issue of parental input and mentioned one technique she has used in her previous jobs, which currently is superintendent of Birmingham, Alabama’s public schools.

“I’ve always had a parent advisory council, so that there is space for a voice for parents to be right in the face or in the ear of the superintendent,” she said. That council included a parent representative from every school in the system, she said.

On some other controversial topics, Herring said she saw both sides, such as charter schools, which are a widely debated component of APS under Carstarphen. “I’ve seen the success of charter schools and I’ve also seen the challenges, across — not just Atlanta Public Schools, but across the country,” said Herring.

One questioner asked about the loss of Title I funding in the North Atlanta Cluster. Title I is federal funding directed at schools where at least 35% of the student population is low-income. Herring answered broadly by praising APS for having an equity policy and saying that previous districts where she worked still don’t have them, despite lengthy discussions. That idea of equity would guide her thinking about how individual schools get resources, she said.

Divisions between haves and have-nots exist, Herring said: “In public education, that is simply a reality, depending on the construct of the district.” Her concept of equity, she said, is providing resources to ensure success, “whether that success is grounded in accelerating the lowest-performing or accelerating the accelerated.”

The school board will see an election in 2021. One question asked about dealing with possible board member transition shortly after a superintendent switch. Herring said she had that situation in Birmingham, with two-thirds of the board that hired her replaced, and they nonetheless completed a strategic plan in less than a year.

The school has two more town halls for Herring scheduled for Wednesday, May 6, and is working on a Spanish-language town hall as well. For more information, see the school board website here.

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