School & District Management

Ackerman Blames Her Departure on Political Missteps

By Christina A. Samuels — August 24, 2011 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Arlene Ackerman, who resigned Monday as superintendent of the 155,000-student Philadelphia district, said in an interview with Education Week Wednesday that political miscalculations led to her removal, not issues with job performance.

“There are people who wanted me to stay. Politicians and ministers said, ‘I want you to stay,’ ” Ackerman said. “But if your boss does not want to work with you, and they’re willing to pay you a million to step aside—that’s how much they don’t want to work with you—then what can you do?”

Ackerman received a $905,000 buyout to resign; $500,000 came from the school district, and $405,000 from private anonymous donors, which is raising some eyebrows among advocates for open government.

In February, the city’s School Reform Commission, which oversees the district, reviewed Ackerman’s job performance. At that time, the commission was pleased enough with her job performance to extend her five-year contract, which had two years remaining on it, for an additional year. In a statement, the commission noted academic improvements in the district and said it wanted stability while reform efforts were underway.

(For about 10 years the district has been run not by an elected board, but by a five-member commission; three appointees are selected by the governor, and two are selected by the mayor. Clarification: Many thanks to reader @arieswym who let me know that the SRC replaced what had been an appointed school board in the district. Philadelphia has never had an elected school board.)

From Ackerman’s perspective, however, her tenure started going downhill in March when the district approved a a particular charter contractor, Mosaica, for an underperforming high school, instead of a charter-management company that was supported by a state reprensentative. She said she was told to overrule the parents’ choice of Mosaica, but she didn’t say in the interview who told her to do so. But she refused to make the change, saying it was the parents’ decision.

“I was told then I was making a ‘career decision,’ ” Ackerman said. Mosaica eventually withdrew its name from consideration from managing the school. The Philadelphia Public School Notebook blog has covered this issue closely, here’s just one post that lays out the situation.

Later, Ackerman says she ran afoul of Mayor Michael Nutter when he asked her to place all-day kindergarten in Philadelphia on the chopping block as a way to deal with a budget deficit in the district of over $600 million. All-day kindergarten was not a program that she wanted to cut, but she said Nutter wanted to use the potential loss of the program as a bargaining chip with the city and state.

“I really didn’t want to do it, I really didn’t feel good about it,” Ackerman said. “But I’m trying to play the politics here.” After the program was announced as a potential cut, “I was approached by hundreds of parents about this. It didn’t align with everything else that I was about.”

In June, the district announced that it had found a way to use Title I money to pay for the program, which “angered a powerful ally,” according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. According to that story, “the Nutter administration signaled that it was not happy at being kept in the dark on the kindergarten deal. Ackerman notified Mayor Nutter—who had strongly advocated for $75 million to $110 million in new city money for the district—only an hour before she made the announcement. “It’s a big problem,” Mark McDonald, Nutter’s press secretary, was quoted as saying in the article.

“My misstep was to cross to mayor, and my mistake was to ever have agreed to it,” Ackerman said. “I actually thought he would be happy that we found the money, but he was furious.”

Ackerman said she also ran afoul of the city’s teachers union during negotiations to expand the city’s Promise Academies, a district-run effort to improve low-performing schools through several initiatives, including expanding the school day and year.

“It’s one thing to be fired when you do something. It’s another thing to have to step down when you have to do the right thing. I’m in perfect peace,” she said.

As for the nearly $1 million settlement agreement, Ackerman said that she wasn’t the one who broke the five-year contract she signed—it was the School Reform Commission. She said she was “shocked” to learn that anonymous contributors had donated money to an effort to remove her from office.

“That’s the degree to which the pushback is for real change to happen in Philadelphia. People would rather give [money] to get me out of here,” she said.

When asked if she considered waiving the provisions of her contract, she said, “Would that have been your consideration? I left a very comfortable life, I left my house, because people in Philadelphia came to me.” Ackerman, who had previously served as a superintendent in San Francisco and the District of Columbia, was a professor at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York before she was hired in Philadelphia in 2008.

Ackerman’s version of events doesn’t include some of the issues raised in a Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer article that noted her departure was imminent. In that article, she was blamed for having an imperious management style and making poor decisions. Dozens of schools across the state, including 27 in Philadelphia, have been flagged as having suspicious results on tests. And the budget deficit in the city has required dramatic cuts.

Ackerman has created her own YouTube Channel that has a retrospective on her leadership and a video of a speech she made to principals last week that was widely seen as a defiant goodbye to the district.

Students will be hurt the most by the decision to remove her from the district, she said. “The interests of the adults in the system who have a lot to gain from the status quo will not let [reform] happen,” she said.

Stay tuned for more as I gather responses to Ackerman’s comments. ...

Photo: Former Philadelphia schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, photographed during a 2009 meeting with advisers. (Tom Gralish for Education Week/File)

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.