Ackerman Maintains Politics Soured Her Tenure

By Christina A. Samuels — August 26, 2011 6 min read
Former Philadelphia school superintendent Arlene Ackerman, photographed during a 2009 meeting with advisers.

Arlene C. Ackerman kept mostly silent as rumors swirled this month over whether she was soon to leave the top leadership post in the Philadelphia school system after three years on the job.

But since the decision on her departure was made last week, Ms. Ackerman has been vocal about the reasons she says she was asked to leave the 155,000-student district. And while other city officials say they want to move on, Ms. Ackerman has offered her side of the story in interviews with Education Week and selected Philadelphia media outlets.

She says political land mines, not job-performance issues, soured her relationship with the mayor’s office and the School Reform Commission that manages district policy.

“There are people who wanted me to stay,” Ms. Ackerman, 64, 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?”

Ms. Ackerman walked away from the job as the district’s superintendent and chief executive officer with a $905,000 lump-sum buyout; $500,000 came from the school district, and $405,000 came from private anonymous donors who funneled the money into a nonprofit district-run organization, the Philadelphia’s Children First Fund. Her resignation was announced Aug. 22 and took effect immediately.

Ms. Ackerman has been both criticized for an imperious management style and mismanagement of difficult situations during her tenure—such as violent incidents in city schools, allegations of cheating on state tests, and a massive budget shortfall—and praised for rising test scores her focus on needy students.

But Ms. Ackerman said the end of her tenure started when she ran afoul of a powerful state legislator, Democratic Rep. Dwight Evans, by deciding to award a charter-management contract to a company the lawmaker did not support. Ms. Ackerman also said she upset the mayor’s plans to use the threat of cutting all-day kindergarten as a bargaining chip in talks with the city and the state. She found money to preserve the program as Mayor Michael Nutter, a Democrat, was arguing for a tax increase.

Buyout ‘Not Good Policy’

Rep. Evans’ office did not return a call seeking comment. The mayor, in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, denied Ms. Ackerman’s assertions.

“It’s clear that the former superintendent is on what amounts to a media tour. She has obviously a fair amount of time to talk and run around,” Mr. Nutter was quoted as saying in the article published three days after Ms. Ackerman left. “I have a job, a city to run, and I’m very focused on the fact that schools open in less than two weeks.”

Ms. Ackerman’s settlement agreement, approved Aug. 24 without discussion at a raucous School Reform Commission meeting packed with her supporters, offers some additional perks. Ms. Ackerman will receive health, dental, vision, and prescription-drug benefits through June 2013, as well as up to $6,000 toward a $500,000 life-insurance policy through June 2013.

Some state and local officials, and Ms. Ackerman herself, are saying that the contributors’ names should be publicized.

“It’s just not good policy to have private individuals bailing out the government,” said Zack Stalberg, the president and chief executive officer of the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia political watchdog group.

Ms. Ackerman said she didn’t consider waiving the provisions of her five-year contract because she wasn’t the one who broke it. She said it was the School Reform Commission, which had hired her away in 2008 from Teachers College, Columbia University, where she had landed a job as a professor after stints as superintendent in San Francisco and the District of Columbia.

Her departure isn’t the only one getting attention this month. James A. Williams, the superintendent of the 37,000-student Buffalo, N.Y., district for six years, announced Aug. 16 that he had agreed with his school board to retire Sept. 15. He will receive a buyout of nearly $130,000, which includes six months of salary, unused vacation time, and a $10,000 consulting fee.

Meanwhile, John Covington, the superintendent of the 17,400-student Kansas City, Mo., schools, made an abrupt announcement last week that he plans to resign after just two years on the job.

Support Ebbed

In Philadelphia, Ms. Ackerman’s support among the political leaders in the city appeared to evaporate quickly. In February, the city’s five-member School Reform Commission, made up of state and mayoral appointees, was pleased enough with her job performance to extend her five-year contract, which had two years remaining on it, for an additional year.

But in March, her tenure started going downhill, according to Ms. Ackerman, when a parent committee recommended that Mosaica Education Inc., a New York City-based charter operator, run an underperforming high school. The school was being managed at the time by Foundations Inc., a Moorestown, N.J.-based company with ties to Rep. Evans.

Ms. Ackerman said she wanted to support the parents’ choice but, she contended, Rep. Evans pressured her to keep Foundations in place. Mosaica eventually withdrew its bid to run the high school.

In April, when the district announced a budget proposal full of painful cuts needed to plug a $600 million-plus shortfall in a total budget of about $2.75 billion, one item that drew particular notice was the plan to eliminate all-day kindergarten.

“I really didn’t want to do it,” Ms. Ackerman said.

By June, the district announced that it had found a way to use money from the federal Title I program to keep the program, which angered the mayor, according to 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” and indicated that Ms. Ackerman had notified the mayor only an hour before the announcement.

“I actually thought he would be happy that we found the money, but he was furious,” Ms. Ackerman told Education Week.

Ms. Ackerman said she ran into trouble with the teachers’ union during negotiations to expand the city’s Promise Academies, a district-run effort to improve low-performing schools by extending the school day and year and adding academic enrichment.

The school system wanted to shield teachers at the academies from layoffs taking place in other parts of the district. A high percentage of Promise Academy teachers were first-year teachers, which meant they could be bumped by more experienced teachers under seniority rules.

That dispute ended Aug. 16, when the School Reform Commission and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers agreed to allow seniority rules to apply to Promise Academy teachers.

In an interview last week, Jerry Jordan, the union’s president, said he was reluctant to “berate” the departing superintendent, though in a statement released the day she resigned, he had said “her tenure has been marred by disregard, disrespect, and insensitivity to students, teachers, staff, parents, and the community.”

Deserves Credit

Now that she is gone, Mr. Jordan said in the interview, “I really want to look forward to opening schools in a few days.”

Though the supporters who showed up at the reform commission meeting argued that Ms. Ackerman was being “lynched,” other Philadelphians responded less angrily.

Shelly D. Yanoff, the executive director of the advocacy group Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said Ms. Ackerman deserved credit for some of her initiatives, such as her focus on the district’s neediest children.

But the schools chief also spawned divisiveness, which was evident after a 2009 attack on Asian students by black students at South Philadelphia High School, Ms. Yanoff said. The attacks prompted a boycott by Asian students. Ms. Ackerman did not visit the school until eight days later, and her response was seen as defensive.

“The whole issue with the Asian students was bad, and I’ve said I’m sorry,” Ms. Ackerman said last week, “but it wasn’t a career-ending issue.”

Ms. Yanoff remembers it differently. “She never said she was sorry,” Ms. Yanoff said. “Sometimes you have to be willing to entertain the idea you might not always be right.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2011 edition of Education Week as Ackerman Maintains Political Land Mines Soured Her Tenure

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