Arlene Ackerman, Philadelphia’s latest, but not greatest, unfixable problem

What’s next for Philadelphia, a plague of locusts? The forced termination of Philadelphia’s embattled school superintendent Arlene Ackerman on the eve of the start of the new school year is only the latest disaster to befall the city of brotherly love.

Having to buy out the superintendent’s contract for $900,000 in the midst of a budget crisis of historic proportions is adding insult to injury. This, on top of random flash mob violence that’s scaring off tourists and suburbanites, and routine, accepted violence in the public schools against both students and teachers.

The criminal justice system is dysfunctional, unable to collect fines or bail, and unable to keep violent criminals in prison. The fiscal system is dysfunctional, unable to collect long overdue property taxes, or to seize and auction off the property on which taxes are due, which accelerates neighborhood decline and blight. The child welfare system is a national embarrassment.

The political system is dysfunctional, with politicians and civil servants helping themselves to six-figure DROP payments while not actually retiring, huge unfunded pension liabilities, a city council preoccupied with redistricting to insure the re-election of incumbents, and a mayor, despite all these problems, headed for a landslide re-election for want of a credible challenger.

In hindsight, it’s clear that the tough questions asked of Superintendent Ackerman years ago by School Reform Commissioner Heidi Ramirez were right on target. But it was Commissioner Ramirez who was forced to resign for want of any political support.

For many of us, it was Superintendent Ackerman’s unresponsiveness to the violence at South Philly High directed at Asian students, which first raised the question of whether the right person was leading Philadelphia’s public schools. Her defenders point to increases in student test scores. But the nationwide scandal of cheating on student test scores is expanding and has reached Philadelphia.

In the end it was the recurrent inability of the superintendent to work well with others that provided the clear answer that the superintendent had to go.

So which of Philadelphia’s seemingly insoluble problems is the biggest? Which is the root cause for all the others?

I think Philadelphia’s core problem is the lack of an organized opposition political party. Philadelphia is a one-party town. Occasional good government challengers like Sam Katz can use the Republican ballot line, but they’re essentially running on their own. The Republican political organization is too weak to offer meaningful support to candidates. And it’s too compromised by back room deals with Democrats to present itself as the reform alternative to the status quo.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.