Earlier this week Dr. Arlene Ackerman resigned as superintendent of Philadelphia with a $905,000 buyout. Details of her settlement agreement can be found here, but her departure as well as the buyout have raised numerous controversies. Many of these controversies can be traced back to Dr. Ackerman herself, and her media responses both before and after her announcement that she would resign. Although a clause in her buyout agreement prevents her from criticizing the district’s School Reform Committee, she has not kept quiet about her experiences in Philadelphia. Her finger-pointing at all levels in the district and city government have been met with denial–from Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, that he tried to thwart her Promise Academies (he questioned where the money would come from); from Michael Masch, the district’s chief financial officer, that his numbers were confusing (he says the budget has never been more transparent); that Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has been out to get her over funding full-day kindergarten. She has said that she was pressured to make “unconscionable” decisions from teachers, administrators and politicians, but she remained true to the children; unfortunately, she has not been more clear on what these unconscionable decisions were. She has discussed these allegations on WURD-FM; Mayor Nutter has disagreed with her account. Here’s the interview.
One interesting counterpoint is Larry Powell, in the Fresno County school district, a superintendent with a multi-million dollar budget deficit. His response? Take an $800,000 pay cut. Mr. Powell may have just set an unrealistic expectation for all superintendents in the country (although a girl can dream?), and at this point, the back-and-forth is largely irrelevant; Dr. Ackerman is no longer the superintendent no matter what happens. What I am curious about is: who are the private donors that gave $405,000 to see her gone?
Mayor Nutter doesn’t want to say, although there have been calls for the names to be released (with their permission). Local business leaders were solicited on behalf of the Philadelphia’s Children First Fund; this article notes that “Robert Louis, an attorney for the Children First Fund, said he was told to direct media calls to Erin Davis, chief of staff for the School Reform Commission.”
So now that Dr. Ackerman is gone, where’d the money come from?
ETA, 8/27: The Committee of Seventy is also calling for the city to reveal donor names.
It is also important to remember that Dr. Ackerman’s history is not without controversies. This is not the first job she has left with a settlement, as the Philadelphia Public School Notebook outlines. In 1991, she sued the Saint Louis school district after being laid off as assistant superintendent, and ultimately received a cash settlement. In San Francisco, from Sept 2005-June 2006, she remained on the payroll but did not act as superintendent for 10 months until her contract there as superintendent expired. Although test scores have improved, Philadelphia is also in the midst of a major cheating scandal. And of course, there is the South Philadelphia HS riots which resulted in the US Department of Justice declaring that the district violated the equal protection rights of Asian students in their response to the violence. On the other hand, Dr. Ackerman’s term as superintendent did see her reform plan, Imagine 2014, develop among widespread community input; test scores also continued their steady rise from past years. Now we watch and see: what’s next for Dr. Ackerman? And will the mayor reveal the names of the private donors that wanted her gone?
ETA, 8/29: Further complications on the Arlene Ackerman front: Philadelphia City Paper just released a blog post claiming that they have two knowledgeable sources who say that Dr. Ackerman directed three Communications staffers, employed and paid for by the school district, to coordinate her own personal PR, including public rallies in her favor, communicating with her private supporters, producing signs for protests, and finally producing a well-put-together video tribute when Ackerman left–all on the taxpayer dime. The staffers resigned on the same day that Dr. Ackerman’s buyout was announced; they had worked for the superintendent since November 2010. Former Communications Director Jamilah Fraser was Dr. Ackerman’s fourth communications director since she became superintendent; in addition to the turnover in the director position, two media officers were fired last year in the wake of a critical article about Dr. Ackerman in Philadelphia Magazine, entitled “Queen Arlene.“
Finally, looking toward the future: what do we need in a superintendent?
Melissa Bilash is a dedicated education advocate and the 2010 Mom Congress Delegate from Pennsylvania.This piece was originally posted on August 26th, 2011 on her Advocay & Consulting for Education website.