By Denise Clay
Unless you’ve been in an underground bunker for the last week, you now know that the School District of Philadelphia is, once again, in search of a new superintendent.
Arlene Ackerman, the latest person to be in charge of our city schools, has been kicked to the District curb as of Monday. Reporters ran around the city looking for everyone from Mayor Michael Nutter to the School Reform Commission to Commonwealth’s Department of Education and even Ackerman herself asking for the answer to the $64,000 question: why?
And also who paid. Ackerman jumped out of the School District airplane and used a $905,000 parachute for her safe landing. The SRC voted on Thursday to approve a $500,000 contribution to the bailout while the other $405,000 is allegedly coming from private donations.
But whether or not you’ll get those questions answered depends on to whom you’re directing them. The SRC and the Department of Education are in hiding. Ackerman is telling media outlets like WURD and Education Week that it’s the politics that did her in, not the $629 million deficit or the racial problems at South Philadelphia High School.
And Mayor Nutter? He’s doing a two-step that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers would be proud of. While it’s widely acknowledged that one of Ackerman’s political bad acts was not informing him that she had found a way to save full-day kindergarten from the budget axe as he was trying to get a reticent City Council to consider a sugary drinks tax, he claims that he merely supported the SRC’s decision to fire her after they had made it and played no part in the decision itself.
Were I to believe that, I’d be looking for my down payment for the Ben Franklin Bridge.
Now while I had a front row seat to this whole thing playing out because folks had been telling me all summer that the dance to get Ackerman out had been going on since June, this wasn’t the first time that I had seen the “Get rid of the District’s CEO (or Superintendent, whichever you prefer)” dance performed.
Paul Vallas was the first CEO hired to run the School District of Philadelphia after the State Legislature took local control of it away. He came in from Chicago and to his credit did a lot of great things including improving test scores, creating afterschool programs designed to help kids do better, providing counseling to kids who had seen too many adult things like the shooting of Faheem Thomas-Childs in front of a district school, and giving high school outlets more of a showcase by bringing the Public League into the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.
While he accomplished a lot of good things, Vallas did one bad thing and it got him fired: he left the district with a $75 million deficit.
After a nationwide search, Ackerman was brought in. She had been a superintendent in San Francisco and Washington D.C. and had kind of left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths. She sued to be paid the rest of her contract in both places and while she continued Vallas’ track record of rising test scores, she also created other programs like the Promise Academies, which were to be underperforming schools that got extra money to help them do better.
But she also made more than a few enemies along the way. For example, one of the first things she proposed was the abolishment of so-called “magnet” schools. Her argument was, and it’s not a bad one, is that all schools should be magnet schools because all schools should be great.
She also pissed off the teachers union because her Promise Academies wouldn’t be staffed on the basis of seniority. Senior teachers wouldn’t be able to “bump” younger teachers out of these schools and when layoffs became inevitable due to the deficit, she wanted Promise Academy teachers to be exempt from the budget axe.
Oh and the deficit I mentioned? It was $629 million. Folks are still trying to figure out how the close it because they’ve already laid off everyone and their mother.
Now all of this stuff has gone on since the Commonwealth took over the schools in 2001. State Rep. Dwight Evans and former State Rep. John Perzel thought that the district needed to come under state control due to low test scores, budgetary concerns, and the fact that former Superintendent David Hornbeck used to come to the legislature and call legislators outright racists for the lack of financial support it received from Harrisburg…
The truth often hurts, I guess. But you can make it hurt less when you hold the financial purse strings, thus the takeover.
(By the way, if you want to see just how personal this was for the legislature, take a look at the test scores for some of the suburban schools during that time. They were lower than Philly’s and yet, the word “takeover” was never uttered by their legislators. Go figure…)
The contention from the Commonwealth was, we can do a better job at running your school district that you can, so we’re going to take it from you.
Too bad it’s been just the opposite. The district is still operating in a deficit. Programs are getting cut. Private management companies are getting crazy paid. Charter Schools, some of them good, many of them infamous, are growing like weeds.
And kids are getting screwed because they don’t have all they need to get the education they deserve.
(I’m not even going to get into how the Commonwealth could fix this by paying for the stuff that it mandates schools to do because it’ll cause me to swear.)
So maybe its time that Mayor Nutter, City Council, and the powers that be here in Philly do something that a lot of folks have been calling them to do since Evans, Perzel and Company put their pointy heads together and decided that the Commonwealth could do better by the district’s schools.
It’s time for you to say: give us our damn schools back!
Like I said, this isn’t the first time that we’re going to the national search well. The Commonwealth, represented by an SRC that hasn’t really had anyone good on it since Jim Nevels, Heidi Ramirez and others were forced off, is going to be responsible for finding the next superintendent.
I say that the first thing that we do is take these folks out of the equation and get rid of the SRC. The next thing that we ought to do is go en masse to Rep. Evans office and say “Either you get our schools back or we’re going to go and make you get a real job next election!”
Because let’s be honest with ourselves. While we have to partner with the Commonwealth because it provides the School District of Philadelphia with funding, there are two things that we fail to take into account when we sit idly by and let the current school takeover arrangement continue.
One, that if Philadelphia, and the taxes it pays to the state, didn’t exist, the state would be trying to live on agriculture. Without us, the Alabama Section of Pennsylvania would be hurtin’ for certain! We need to remind Harrisburg of that because it tends to get amnesia.
And secondly, over the last 10 years, we’ve had deficits of close to $800 million at the district. If you’re so much better at managing our school affairs than we are, why is that?
The answer: you’re not better than we are at it. So give us our schools back.
I know that this is falling on deaf ears because when I asked Mayor Nutter about it he gave me the kind of answer that would indicate he doesn’t understand how tightly linked our bad governance issues are to who decides who runs the School District.
But maybe its time that we as Philadelphians do what are leaders are afraid to do: take back what’s ours.
It is said that the true definition of “insanity” is to do something the exact same way all of the time, yet expecting a different result.
In light of the Ackerman mess, methinks it’s time that the School District of Philadelphia follow the advice of lifestyle guru Susan Powter.
It’s time, ladies and gentlemen, to Stop The Insanity!