Now the real work begins in city schools

Students, relatives and teachers gather in the schoolyard at Willard Elementary School in Kensington in 2010.

As Philadelphia’s 155,000 schoolchildren return to their classrooms, the most important questions facing them aren’t on any standardized test.

The firing of former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman after an embattled three-year tenure leaves a crucial leadership void, and no one has said how political leaders intend to fill it.

Ackerman accepted a generous $905,000 buyout package, which she may have placed in jeopardy by violating an agreement not to badmouth other School District executives. Getting her in trouble were remarks she made in a radio program suggesting the district’s chief financial officer, Michael Masch, did a poor job.

Her comments may have been rash, but Ackerman isn’t the only one who has wondered how someone who was a former budget director for the city and the state’s budget officer under Gov. Ed Rendell could let the district’s finances get so badly out of joint. Hastening Ackerman’s demise was a $650 million budget deficit.

It will be hard for teachers and administrators not to be distracted by the controversy and the search for Ackerman’s replacement. But they must make sure that all the uncertainty facing the nation’s eighth largest school district doesn’t filter down to their No. 1 priority — the children.

The district appears to have a competent interim leader in Leroy Nunery II, who deserves a lot of credit for keeping the district on track to open within weeks of Ackerman’s ouster. Nunery, who was deputy superintendent under Ackerman, wants the job permanently. But the search for a new leader should be wide open.

For now, Nunery needs to provide a calmer hand at the wheel than did Ackerman, who gained a reputation for imperiously making frequent and seemingly mercurial personnel changes. A different persona is needed to restore public confidence and help the cash-needy district navigate typically stormy political waters.

The School Reform Commission — guided by Gov. Corbett and Mayor Nutter, who appoint its five members — is charged with hiring a new schools chief. The SRC itself, however, could use new leadership. Under chairman Robert Archie, it rarely served as the needed counterweight to Ackerman’s authoritarian ways.

While the search for a new superintendent proceeds, Nunery and the SRC must make sure whatever progress Ackerman was making doesn’t go up in smoke now that she’s gone. They should build on those reforms started by Ackerman that were showing signs of success. This is no time for that progress to halt.

Equally important, having received no indication from Harrisburg that the state is willing to send additional school funds to Phiadelphia, the district needs to figure out how to operate with the cash it has in hand.

A new school year means a fresh beginning for students, educators, and parents. Here’s hoping that it isn’t as stormy as the one that preceded it.