Philadelphia’s school superintendent was let go today by the School Reform Commission, which gave her a $905,000 buyout cobbled together from public and private funds.
Arlene Ackerman has been under fire for months and calls for her departure have come almost daily. Her management style and advocacy for the city’s poorest students have become a flashpoint, generating very different reactions from her supporters and critics.
Jerry Mondesire, head of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, says it’s a major loss to the area. “I think she was a hard-working educator,” he said. “We weren’t always impressed by her political skills especially as it pertains to the political paradigm that makes up Philadelphia, but from the point of student achievement she made significant gains and she was on track to make significant changes and improvements especially to the inner city high schools before the Corbett budget cuts.”
Ackerman’s supporters believe her initiatives to turn around troubled schools, such as Promise Academies and Renaissance Schools, targeted education dollars where the need is greatest and were beginning to bear fruit.
By contrast, Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, called Ackerman’s departure “a step in the right direction.” The union’s relationship with Ackerman, once fairly cordial, frayed over issues such as how she handled layoffs, her curriculum initiatives, and her disciplining of an outspoken teacher.
Other critics knocked what they called her abrasive style, and what they saws as her ham-handed handling of the district’s finances, and the politics of closing a budget deficit.
The district’s second-in-command, Leroy Nunery, was named interim superintendent. Ackerman’s departure has been rumored for several weeks. Last week, at a meeting with district principals, she feistily dared officials to make a move on her contract. “Go ahead, sentence me I dare you, or set me free, but I admit to you today that I am guilty, guilty of just being me,” Ackerman said. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter says the School Reform Commission has been negotiating to buy out Ackerman for months. “That conversation started, they informed me they had made that decision, I agreed and supported that decision and life has moved on,” the mayor said. The buyout of $905,000 consists of $500,000 in taxpayer dollars to be approved by the SRC, the rest from “anonymous private donors.” The mayor says he helped with the fund-raising. “I was asked would I support that kind of effort and my response was ‘yes’ because my interest was in minimizing the amount of public dollars that might go towards any settlement given the district’s finances and so again when asked I did support it and yes I have made a couple calls,” Nutter said. State Rep. Michael McGeehan, a Northeast Philadelphia Democrat, is calling for the state Attorney General to investigate. “When we have anonymous donors giving these hundreds of thousands of dollars for what reasons we don’t know, for what purpose were they solicited, we don’t know I’m going to be calling on the Attorney General to do an investigation of the propriety of using private dollars for compensating public officials,” he said.
The Committee of Seventy watchdog group has called upon the SRC and Nutter to release the names of the donors. Nunery was a runner-up candidate for the superintendency when Ackerman won the job in 2008. Ackerman previously ran the San Francisco and Washington, D.C., school systems.
McGeehan has some advice for Nunery. “He needs to immediately re-establish a relationship with Harrisburg because the city of Philadelphia is incapable of funding the school district itself and I think the district will have to be more answerable to Harrisburg in the future,”advised McGeehan.
Nutter says it’s time to move on: “A transition is taking place we all need to move on and as of this moment my focus is on working on the team that is in place, focused on getting schools open and having a good school year. That’s what I am going to be doing.” A nationwide search is planned for Ackerman’s replacement. Nunery said he’d like to be considered for the permanent job.
Here is a summary of earlier updates on this story:
Update 3 p.m. Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams calls Ackerman’s departure a set back. Williams was among Ackerman’s supporters at last week’s SRC meeting, and says in a statement, “No one is perfect, and if anything, [Ackerman’s] driving desire to advance our children led to a singular focus – and less time to charming media or placating lawmakers. She was about the kids.”
Update 12 p.m. Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan has issued his own statement about Ackerman’s departure, calling it a “step in the right direction.”
“Instead of treating PFT members as adversaries, I hope that the acting superintendent sees teachers, staff and their elected union representatives as partners in reform and allies in the struggle to prepare every student to be a well-educated, responsible and productive worker and a thoughtful and engaged citizen,” Jordan writes. “PFT members look forward to working collaboratively with the new administration to ensure that safe, engaging, high-quality schools are the norm in the City of Philadelphia.”
Update 11:30 a.m. The School District has released a statement from School Reform Commission Chair Robert Archie, Mayor Michael Nutter and Ackerman.
“The School Reform Commission and Dr. Ackerman are in agreement that the work begun by her requires us to focus our mission and resources on building a system of great schools for all children,” Archie says in the release, which says Ackerman’s departure is effective immediately. You can read the full statement here.
The SRC will review the financial breakdown of Ackerman’s buyout at its Wednesday meeting. Today’s overview calls for $500,000 from the SRC and the District and $405,000 from “anonymous private contributors.”
Update 10 a.m. Multiple sources confirm Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is leaving her job.
Ackerman took over the School District in June of 2008 after running the San Francisco and Washington, D.C., schools. She has been under pressure recently to leave her position. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell has defended Ackerman in the past. “Dr. Arlene Ackerman was a great educator, She knew her craft, she knew her business. The rest of it that’s happened between the spring and how was kind of a nightmare that was more on the inside than the outside.”
Blackwell says Leroy Nunery, Ackerman’s top aide will take over as interim superintendent. He was a finalist for the position when Ackerman was hired.
9:40 a.m. Arlene Ackerman is on her way out as the superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia.
Taking over in the meantime is Leroy Nunery, current Ackerman’s deputy.
Look for more details as the story develops.
Your thoughts: Ackerman’s buyout comes while the school district is dealing with a $629 million deficit. There is some reluctance among city and district leaders to financially reward a leader who failed to avoid the deficit in the first place. Are you someone who thinks the district can’t afford to buy her out—or someone who thinks the district can’t afford to keep her? Tell us what you’re thinking in the comments below.