School & District Management

Ackerman’s Tumultuous Final Act in Philadelphia

By Dale Mezzacappa & Philadelphia Public School Notebook — August 23, 2011 9 min read
Philadelphia schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, center, receives a standing ovation last week after addressing principals gathered at Lincoln High School for their annual convocation.
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The School Reform Commission and Philadelphia schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who stepped down on Monday, 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, members of the School Reform Commission—which has overseen the district since the state took control of the city’s public school system in late 2001—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.

Despite the 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.”

Rising Tensions

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.

“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.

“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 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,” he said.

Past Tenures

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 she was recruited to Philadelphia.

Sandra 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.

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 three 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.”

Republished with permission from The Philadelphia Public School Notebook. Copyright © 2011 The Philadelphia Public School Notebook.
A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2011 edition of Education Week as Ackerman’s Tumultuous Final Act in Philadelphia


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