ABOVE PHOTO: Phila. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, center, gets a standing ovation after addressing principals gathered at Lincoln High School for their annual convocation. Ackerman’s supporters note that she has boosted test scores, introduced promising reforms and created parent outreach programs. But, entering her fourth full school year in the city, Ackerman’s support steadily eroded. Critics said she was overpaid, autocratic and a polarizing presence in Pennsylvania’s largest district; and as a result she resigned effective immediately on Monday, Aug. 22, 2011.
(AP Photo/The Philadelphia Inquirer, Clem Murray)
Regrettably, one of the best education professionals ever to try and fix our public schools, Dr. Arlene Ackerman, will be remembered more for how she cashed out her contract for nearly a cool one million dollars, than for how she tried to reform the nation’s eighth largest school system.
Reading and math scores are continuing to rise even at some of the city’s worst performing schools; student violence is down; graduation rates are inching up and parent involvement was finally beginning to trend in the right direction.
Even as Ackerman rushed toward the exit door– severance check in hand– her detractors savored the investigations underway into who contributed to her “retirement package” and why various rich and anonymous donors decided to cough up some of their dough. What a mess no actually…what a putrid mess her exit has become.
Who could have guessed at such an outcome when she was hired three years ago amid cheers and hallelujah choruses for her reputation as a no-nonsense reformer unafraid to directly engage entrenched union leaders and bureaucrats who were satisfied with their slice of the status quo?
Believe it or not just a few months ago, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers even applauded Dr. Ackerman last year when they and she negotiated a rudimentary merit pay plan for teachers.
“All of us wish to acknowledge the substantial debt we owe Dr. Ackerman for her hard work and dedicated service to the District. In 2008, when she was recruited to leave her tenured professorship…less than 50 percent of the District’s students were at or above statewide standards for reading and math proficiency. Dr. Ackerman immediately set out a comprehensive plan to target reforms that would close the achievement gap while raising the District’s performance across the board.”
Those words were heard on the same day Dr. Ackerman’s $905,000 buy-out was announced. The words came from uber lawyer and School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie, the man Ackerman’s street-level supporter’s blame along with Mayor Michael Nutter as the ring leaders of the superintendent’s ouster.
So, how did it come to pass that the same SRC chairman who voted to extend Ackerman’s contract just before Easter wasted no time before flushing her tenure before Labor Day? In a word…politics.
When the full impact of the school district’s budget disaster became evident with the loss of temporary federal grants and across-the-board budget cuts mandated by a mean-spirited new Republican administration in Harrisburg, Ackerman chose not to reach out to her natural allies in the civic, religious and political communities. Instead, she exhibited an even more pronounced imperious style that irritated the multiple egos of these and other groups who comprise the city’s political elites.
Simply explained…Dr. Ackerman failed to have her own gang. By time the $600 million+ budget hole had been addressed through massive teacher layoffs and even brutish programmatic cuts to favored programs and reforms, there was precious few eager watch her back.
Then, when she embarrassed Mayor Nutter by unexpectedly locating funds for all-day kindergarten (a prime target area the mayor had counted on to exploit against Governor Tom Corbett’s massive cuts) her grip on power was seriously undermined.
Because her previous haughtiness had pushed away early allies from the clergy, parent groups and civic organizations like the NAACP, there were precious few calls to the mayor’s office from leaders that Nutter had to respect. That vacuum was soon filled by the sound of phone calls from the mayor and others dialing-for-dollars to raise the eventual $405,000 in secret donations from private individuals and/or institutions used to round out her severance agreement. Hefty cash for unused vacation and sick time and elongated medical coverage for two more years inflated her deal still larger.
In the end, Dr. Ackerman’s failure to develop her own” gang” proved to be central to her undoing, because it left her totally exposed on all fronts.
Regrettably, the final chapter of Dr. Ackerman’s storied career resembles that of another skilled and self-assured American…General George Armstrong Custer.