Menu
Donate today!
view counter

A long, tumultuous final act

By Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 22, 2011 11:39 PM

The School Reform Commission and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman had “mutually” agreed in principle almost two months ago that she would leave the District, according to Mayor Michael Nutter.

Nutter, at a Monday press conference commenting on the end of her tenure in Philadelphia, said he worked to complete Ackerman’s departure before the start of the school year while minimizing the cost to the taxpayers.

He made his deadline with just two weeks to spare – to the tune of $905,000, with $405,000 of that coming from anonymous, private donors.

It took nearly all summer to close this deal – during which Ackerman and her backers grew more vocal that she was being drummed out for focusing attention and resources on the city’s most disadvantaged children. At several events and meetings during that time, public support for and opposition to Ackerman seemed to polarize along racial lines.

Through these lengthy negotiations, School Reform Commission members have refused to comment publicly, other than to say that she was still the superintendent.

SRC Chairman Robert Archie and his three fellow commissioners sat silently as her defenders excoriated them. They declined to return calls from the media, and otherwise have never explained what prompted them to actively seek her dismissal just months after extending her contract for a year.Ackerman at PSU rally

Despite the SRC's secrecy, the negotiations and resulting uncertainty about who was in charge were clearly a major distraction. The process dragged out at a time that the District was grappling with an unprecedented budget crisis, bitter disputes about how schools will be staffed in the fall, and more.

The entire episode “has exposed the SRC, either the individuals serving on it or the governance structure itself, as very ineffective and weak,” said Phil Goldsmith, a former interim leader of the District.

On Monday, Nutter repeatedly deferred to the SRC members any questions about what finally impelled them to act.

Late Monday, Archie and Leroy Nunery, named as Ackerman’s temporary replacement, posted a joint statement on the District website saying that they “recognize that recent events have made some key stakeholders question the leadership and direction of the School District of Philadelphia. We know we have work to do to earn their trust once again. We are committed to doing so.”

Over the past year of Ackerman’s tenure, there were any number of points of tension that may have contributed to her demise. Not the least of these was Ackerman’s confrontational leadership style, along with the massive budget deficit, and last winter’s U.S. Justice Department ruling that the District had acted with “deliberate indifference” in dealing with violence against Asian students at South Philadelphia High in December 2009.

Nutter called it a “tough year.”

Ackerman angered Nutter himself when he used up political capital to seek extra state and city money to save full-day kindergarten, and the superintendent suddenly rearranged some federal dollars to do that without informing him first. 

Activists who are working most closely with students and schools, whether they like Ackerman or not, say they feel buffeted and appalled by the behavior of those in charge this summer.

Ackerman greets parent“If these rocket scientists knew they wanted to get rid of her, why didn’t they do it in the spring, or wait until school is started and settled?” asked Rev. LeRoi Simmons, a longtime Germantown activist, who said that he worries school will not start smoothly. “I am very disappointed because the children will suffer with a change in administration two weeks before school starts.”

Simmons said he thinks that Ackerman was drummed out of town because she stepped on too many toes of important people.

He said that legislators like Northeast Philadelphia Democrat Michael McGeehan, a state representative, “are upset because a contract went to a Black vendor.” Ackerman intervened to redirect a part of a contract to install security cameras in South Philadelphia High to a minority contractor after another firm had already started the work, an incident covered extensively by the Inquirer.

“That got the press stirred up,” Simmons said. He said power brokers in his neighborhood of Northwest Philadelphia, including Archie and state Rep. Dwight Evans, “got upset” about a potential contract to turn Martin Luther King High School to an outside charter operator. That entire episode, in which Archie acted behind the scenes in what may have been a conflict-of-interest situation, is now under investigation by Nutter’s chief integrity officer.

As for the mayor, “his feelings are hurt because of … not keeping him in the loop. None of them seem focused on the children that are suffering. I’m tired of it,” said Simmons.

Sources interviewed by the Notebook who were close to the negotiations focused their complaints on Ackerman’s behavior. They found it unseemly that while the superintendent was privately negotiating a buyout package, she was insisting publicly that she wanted to stay in Philadelphia. One even suggested it was a way for her to maximize her bargaining position.

“At the time when her lawyer is hammering away for more money, she’s saying she doesn’t want to leave and is crying about the kids,” said a person with close knowledge of the talks. “She is an accomplished negotiator when it comes to the dollars coming to her.”

Others pointed out that the terms of Ackerman’s contract gave her the upper hand in the negotiations.

State Rep. Ron Waters, who heads the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus and has backed the departing superintendent, said Ackerman was entitled to close to $1.5 million, “and she didn’t need anybody to increase her buyout. Given that she took less than the contractual amount owned her, I don’t agree with that contention” that it was all a bargaining ploy, he said.

Nutter said he was determined to limit taxpayer outlay for Ackerman’s departure to $500,000. He helped raise the $405,000 from private, anonymous sources, a move that is already proving controversial.

Ackerman et al, Renaissance Schools year 2 Ackerman announced that the money she would have collected from her recent contract extension would be dedicated to Promise Academies, the high-poverty “turnaround” schools that became her signature initiative.

The meetings between Ackerman and the SRC started at the end of June – right after she announced she was going on vacation and signed documents turning over some of her powers to her deputy Leroy Nunery – which officials insisted at the time was purely routine.

Press reports began to surface that she and the SRC were in negotiations for her to leave, which the parties denied. It still is not clear who made the first move toward an exit plan, though Nutter insists it was not him.

As the rumors that Ackerman was leaving mounted, many of her supporters said that pure racism underlay a decision to push her out because she was taking money from “middle class” schools to give to poorer ones. That undercurrent is still a major point of contention.

“She was standing up for Black children, so they have the opportunity to get an education like all other children,” said activist Venard Johnson. “I don’t think that was racially divisive.”

Goldsmith, the former interim superintendent, said that a major issue going forward will be “how to provide schools with greater needs more resources without taking from other schools. … We have to talk about these issues.”

This is not the first job that Ackerman has left on bitter terms, nor the first time that her leadership was marked by racially tinged battles over where and how scarce resources should be allocated.

In 1991, for instance, she was laid off as assistant superintendent in St. Louis, her hometown, and then sued the school board for $200,000 alleging that she was being punished for emphasizing Black achievement, according to the Washington Post. She did reach a cash settlement and ultimately was offered her old job back. She declined the job offer, but regarded it as a vindication.

In Washington, D.C., where she landed as superintendent in 1998, newspaper accounts also talked about her autocratic style, poor management, and fraught relationship with the school board.

Her tenure in San Francisco, where she was superintendent from 2000 to 2006, was also tumultuous, with a seven-member school board split 4-3 over most of her initiatives. For the last year and a half it was largely open warfare, and she in effect was on the payroll but not acting as superintendent between September 2005 and June 2006, when her contract expired. She had negotiated a “compatibility clause” that allowed either side to terminate it. 

As in Philadelphia, Ackerman frequently said that her detractors were berating her management style while ignoring or dismissing her successes, particularly in increasing Black and Latino achievement. She battled the board over her compensation and severance package.

She was teaching at Columbia University when recruited here.

Arlene Ackerman and Sandra Dungee GlennSandra Dungee Glenn, who was SRC chair when Ackerman was hired, said that her achievements should not be overlooked, including improved test scores and a relatively progressive teachers’ contract. “I’m sorry to see her go under these circumstances.” She also said the SRC “can’t look at finding a savior” without re-examining how the governance structure works.

“I believe it has its strengths, it has weaknesses,” she said of the SRC. "It kept both the city and state yoked to future of the School District. As financial stakeholders, we have to have both of them close at hand.”

In late February, just four months before the SRC decided it was time for Ackerman go to, it allowed a clause in her contract to take effect that extended her employment to 2014, increasing what she was entitled to at a buyout. No one on the SRC has ever provided an explanation for that. Nutter has not spoken to whether he knew about and supported the extension at the time.

After that move, the SRC could hardly turn around and terminate Ackerman "for cause." And the extension to 2014 meant that the District was committing to 3 years of salary, benefits, and bonuses worth $1.5 million.

“We had an SRC unable or unwilling to provide the appropriate level of oversight and transparency,” said Goldsmith. “We have to relook at … whether the SRC model works, and whether it has the right people.”

The five-member SRC has two mayoral and three gubernatorial appointees (one gubernatorial slot is currently vacant). Nutter declined to respond directly when asked whether he was happy with the performance of his appointees. “They are trying to do the best job they can,” he said.

He pointed out that while he has personally long sought more direct city control of the District, changing the governance structure in Philadelphia would take an act of the General Assembly, which is not likely to happen.

“What gets missed is that the city is not the only funder of public education,” he said. “We are not the major funder.” 

Click Here
view counter

Comments (27)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2011 7:15 am

So she KNEW she was out, had agreed to be out, and still sent her attack dogs to cause a scene. Do they feel cheated? Do they finally see her for the fraud she is?

Submitted by J Taylor (not verified) on August 23, 2011 7:23 am

The ugliness that this charade has brought us leaves me disgusted and worried about the possibility of civility as we try to balance opposing needs in an under-resourced system. The antics that have been orchestrated on Dr. Ackerman's behalf have drained time, energy, and trust from her employees, the citizens of Philadelphia, and yes, the children.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2011 9:03 am

All of that is correct and read Elmer Smith's article in the Daily News. Nunnery should NOT have that position and the whole SRC charade should be disbanded. How Archie is not incarcerated in beyond me. I wonder if Ackerman will bring her Mariachi Band with her to St. Louis----only kidding, of course, she will.

Submitted by I Teach in Philly (not verified) on August 23, 2011 1:05 pm

You forgot to say her *highly paid* Mariachi Band.

I hope Ackerman takes Cliatt-Wayman with her. Her management "style" is just like Arlene's: bullying and disrespectful.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2011 4:26 pm

No, The Mariachi Band pays their own expenses. They're just honored to play for their Queen.

Submitted by Wake Up Philly (not verified) on August 23, 2011 8:10 am

I knew about San Francisco and Washington, DC but nothing about St. Louis. It seems to me that there is a consistent pattern. Who vetted her? How deeply did they look into her background? Why was she specifically brought here? How do her supporters feel now that they know she was lying to them? Perhaps they secretly knew what was happening and with that burning fervor in their eyes decided to continue to back her all the way! What did they get in return?
What a wonderful person she is - she left money for the Promise Schools - oh please!!! I'll sell you the Brooklyn Bridge for $1M.
Ms. Glenn she brought about a progressive teacher contract - and then tried to make them come back to the table to give back. I never once heard Jerry Jordan say that she should renegotiate her contract and give back. Twenty days in 2 years was like a drop in the bucket for her. Don't insult my intelligence. Oh, by the way, I am not a teacher nor staff of the PSD, I wouldn't want to be - you couldn't pay me enough. They are so denigrated and made the scape goats of the country because the education system is failing. It is not only failing black children it is failing children of all races!
The smoke screen that has been blown in our faces with the race issue rearing it's ugly head once again has to stop!
To quote the newspaper article -
"As the rumors that Ackerman was leaving mounted, many of her supporters said that pure racism underlay a decision to push her out because she was taking money from “middle class” schools to give to poorer ones. That undercurrent is still a major point of contention.

“She was standing up for Black children, so they have the opportunity to get an education like all other children,” said activist Venard Johnson. “I don’t think that was racially divisive.”"

Mr. Johnson are you for real - which side of the coin are you truly on?
I have read some of your other comments at various times and I am confused. You seem to blow with the wind. What contract are you looking for? What have you received in return?

Of course, the legislator is "white" so it lends no credence to his concerns because Dr. Ackerman chose to buck the system that was in place. Doesn't it astound you that she was found to have been not guilty or any mishandling of the contract situation? I am not surprised at all because she seemed to do what she damn well pleased and called out the troops to defend her when necessary. What were the results of the contract?

Reverend Simmons - I wonder what would have happened to Ackerman if the contract was in the hands of a minority (black) firm and Ackerman intervened and gave it to a "white" owned company. All hell would have broken loose and she would have been disowned by her black supporters. Reverse racism takes place, but you don't hear those people standing up and screaming "racism." Please you are a Reverend - let's stop making everything about race.

Many of our City Leaders are black - I vote on the job that they did and I hope they will do - not on the color of their skin. I also don't vote along Party Lines - I split my vote when necessary. Oh by the way - I do vote and have not missed an election. I walk the talk and don't sit and Monday Morning Quarterback when I don't like the way things are done.

Please let's be careful of who we find for the next Superintendent. Our City and taxpayers can't afford much more bungling. We have been financially raped by CEO's and Superintendent's. Let's have an end to this. The money needs to go to our schools and to our children and staff for the betterment of our schools.

How many "middle class schools" are left? To my estimation we have all been hurt badly by the budget crisis in the nation. Middle Class people pay the most in taxes - oh that includes people of all colors - I fear we are seeing the demise of the Middle Class in this country. Everyone should open their eyes and think what will happen when we have a two class system. The rich sure aren't giving up their money for taxes. Where will the supports come from?

Let's get on with business and do better by our children - all of our children!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2011 9:49 am

Why was she brought here after knowing her history????? Ooooo, oooo, oooo, Mr. Kotter, I have an answer. The shot callers wanted her to come hear and create chaos and surprise, surprise, that's what she did. That's who she is. That's what she does. She'll now go somewhere else where she'll do it all over again.

Submitted by Wake Up Philly (not verified) on August 23, 2011 6:08 pm

Thank you Horshack (?) for responding. I really enjoyed your response. You well describe her purpose in our School District! :-)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2011 6:52 pm

You're welcome, Mr. Kot--ter !!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2011 7:40 am

You mean there actually was an meaningful purpose of there than filling her bags with money!!!!!! "Come to Philadelphia, be incompetent, spend, spend, spend and walk away with lots of cash and no accountability." Somebody needs to make it very clear to the tax paying public every dime this woman is getting, salary, bonuses, severance. Then they need to make sure NO ONE does this to the children of this city and it's tax payers.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2011 7:26 am

The old Phillies Manager, Gene Mauch, said sometimes you add by subtracting. I think he had Arlene in mind. Now, to the SRC----They extended her 1 extra year in February KNOWING the financial mess, how does that happen unless they are ALL COMPLICIT, and frankly, including Nutter. These are smart people so the word corruption must be approached when speaking about them, yes, including Nutter. Just putting Nunnery in charge should really tell us all where things stand.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 25, 2011 7:29 pm

Part of the problem as I remember it was a lack of candidates, the last time we were looking for a superintendent. There were three and then one of them pulled out, so the SRC was picking between Ackerman and one other person. I'm concerned about the ability of Philly to attract any capable candidates. Honestly, what sane person would want that job?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2011 9:38 am

Something is seriously wrong here. The State should have paid at least 3/5 of her severance fees. None/very little of it should have come from the School District or private individuals (likely just covering up for the SRC). It really doesn't matter that she resigned, the responsibility for creating her contract and not sufficiently monitoring the spending still remains. O.K. so how is the SRC going to "earn back trust"? How about resigning? By staying instead, they deny any wrongdoing. That is a crime.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2011 7:09 am

I totally agree and again, I bow before you. You said it all. They have no shame and apparently, will continue to fly below the radar legally. Unless they resign and Nunnery included, we have no prayer. Ackerman is likely to blow the whistle on them though in one of her bombastic episodes after the Mariachi Band announces her arrival.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2011 10:27 am

Mayor Nutter you've made a huge mistake here. The City has every right to sue the State for the damages caused by the State portion of the SRC. This should include not only Ms. Ackerman's contract clauses, but lost basic services because of unwise spending. Wake up!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2011 4:40 pm

Maybe, he's wide awake and in on the corruption. Just a thought !!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2011 6:31 pm

Sadly it seems an accurate thought. It's either corruption or ambition. He seems to be trying too hard to please the big $$. "To Harrisburg, and beyond!!?"

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2011 6:50 pm

I totally agree--good points.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2011 9:08 pm

so ackerman's dickering since june over terms of her buyout. she finally goes loose cannon, recites some weird cryptic poetry & dares powers that be to fire her & within a day or two she gets her million dollar payoff (from anonymous donors no less), & no one's talking details. i call that "hush money". ackerman made a very public threat...pay me what i want or i'll sing my head off. this whole episode stinks of corruption. follow the money!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2011 9:45 pm

I'm jealous--I thought the same thing but was afraid to say it. I was positive she was inferring in code that she would blab if she didn't get paid. I wouldn't be shocked if she had to sign something that requires her to keep her mouth shut. Putting Nunnery in charge means nothing's changed. He's slick Rick incarnate--same as the Queen, only quieter. Why is Archie still on the SRC?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2011 11:06 am

After working for the San Francisco Unified School District under Ackerman I can tell you her populist, uninformed and emotionally driven executive decisions and policies literally decimated many of our budget and resource allocation abilities. We are just now finally recovering from the damage she caused with divisive rhetoric and poorly informed agenda's, and in many cases may never be able to recover the loss of dedicated, intelligent and talented Staff who left in part because of her 'Executive Leadership' style. SFUSD still struggles with trying to bring technology into the 21st century for example, in large part because during Ackerman's tenure she decided not only to halt funding for any new technology initiatives, she also reduced budgeting for all technology support by more than half; redistributing that funding to better serve her public image. This is just one of many examples. These decisions were based entirely on her opinions and not on any well-reasoned initiatives or thoughtful dialogue; her ultimate severance and contentious departure deeply stung many who had believed they were part of an initiative for change and were invested in making a positive difference for our Students. In fact they were only providing traction for an opportunist who obviously has made a career of this kind of behavior.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2011 2:10 pm

"At several events and meetings during that time, public support for and opposition to Ackerman seemed to polarize along racial lines."

this comment mischaracterizes and overestimates ackerman's support, which ain't nothing but a few paid-off loudmouth lackey's and the usual tired political hacks. most people, irregardless of color, (excepting the Inquirer Editorial Board) had the good sense to see her for what she is...a fraud.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2011 9:17 am

Let's get a little perspective. After destroying the economy of the US and beyond, while hundreds of thousands of people lost homes and jobs, the big wigs on Wall Street (and in the oil companies and various other places) took millions (maybe billions) in bonuses and walked away with great profits. So that puts Ackerman's $905,000 into a little perspective. BUT, even with that perspective this is disgusting; I still don't know how she and the people who arranged this can live with themselves while teachers are laid off and public school resources are decimated. Is this how we care about children?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2011 9:24 am

Let's get a little perspective. After destroying the economy of the US and beyond, while hundreds of thousands of people lost homes and jobs, the big wigs on Wall Street (and in the oil companies and various other places) took millions (maybe billions) in bonuses and walked away with great profits. So that puts Ackerman's $905,000 into a little perspective. BUT, even with that perspective this is disgusting; I still don't know how she and the people who arranged this can live with themselves while teachers are laid off and public school resources are decimated. Is this how we care about children?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2011 6:14 pm

While, I agree there were problems, and the management style left a lot of questions. I don't think there was an evil design or plan by any of the major decision makers. I think they are trying their best, given the enormous complexity of the issues.
The buy-out is the cost of doing business on that level CFO, CEO,etc.
And, when you look at it, no one is getting really wealthy.
A million or two over several years, I would definitely say no, if offered the job. It's really not game changing money.

I hope and pray that our new leadership will prosper, and our children continue to improve.

Submitted by gabriela (not verified) on June 4, 2014 7:00 am
I think it's amazing that anonymous donors gave over 400 million dollars. That is a huge figure. I would have never expected that. I think this is a big ray of light....knowing that people care so much and are willing to help in such a big way. faceti asigurari
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2014 6:16 am

Many of our city leaders actually done a good job, I work for them to vote, and I hope they will do better, but this does not color difference, I did not vote according to party category. Incidentally, in fact, I Sit vote,, Haha Well, I did not miss an election.---Christopher

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

By using this service you agree not to post material that is obscene, harassing, defamatory, or otherwise objectionable. We reserve the right to delete or remove any material deemed to be in violation of this rule, and to ban anyone who violates this rule. Please see our "Terms of Usage" for more detail concerning your obligations as a user of this service. Reader comments are limited to 500 words. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

Follow Us On

Read the latest print issue

Philly Ed Feed

Recent Comments

Top

Public School Notebook

699 Ranstead St.
Third Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Phone: (215) 839-0082
Fax: (215) 238-2300
notebook@thenotebook.org

© Copyright 2013 The Philadelphia Public School Notebook. All Rights Reserved.
Terms of Usage and Privacy Policy