Saturday, September 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Goldsmith: Hit the road, Ack

Schools may be closed for the summer, but Mayor Nutter and Gov. Corbett still have some homework to do: They need to find an exit strategy for Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

Goldsmith: Hit the road, Ack

Arlene Ackerman "has ruled by fiat, intimidation and secrecy," Goldsmith writes. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)
Arlene Ackerman "has ruled by fiat, intimidation and secrecy," Goldsmith writes. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)

Schools may be closed for the summer, but Mayor Nutter and Gov. Corbett still have some homework to do: They need to find an exit strategy for Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

That means reaching a financial settlement with her, appointing an interim executive and conducting a thorough search for a replacement.

This would not be the first time a superintendent has been forced out (Michael Marcase under Mayor Bill Green; David Hornbeck under Mayor John Street, and Paul Vallas, under the School Reform Commission).

It won't be cheap, but it is necessary if the district is to move forward and regain credibility and stability.

Make no mistake about it: Dr. Ackerman is passionate about education, children and opportunities for African-Americans. More than any superintendent I can recall, she has appropriately emphasized the importance of parents in the educational process.

But everyone's strength - in this case, her passion - has a shadow side. She has ruled by fiat, intimidation and secrecy. She doesn't like to be questioned, whether by an SRC member like former commissioner Heidi Ramirez or a teacher like Audenried's Hope Moffett. And when it came to minority contracting in a $7.5 million contract, she seemed to believe the end justified the means.

Her passion also often makes her deaf to the body politic. At a time when residents were losing jobs or taking pay cuts, she resented people questioning her large salary and those of her top aides. And when Asian-Americans were attacked at South Philadelphia High School, she was slow to publicly act, giving the appearance of not being as concerned about this particular minority.

The coup de grace came two weeks ago when she announced that she had found money to save full-day kindergarten, undermining Nutter, who had gone to the mat fighting for more money for the district. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

Ackerman began her tenure as the beneficiary of a huge influx of state and federal dollars but is now presiding over a financial chasm wider than the Grand Canyon - a gap almost 10 times larger than the one that led to the departure of her predecessor, Vallas.

Granted, Ackerman can't be held accountable for the reduction in revenues. But she is accountable for failing to respond proactively to the predictable drop-off of state and federal funds. Instead, she stubbornly stuck to her original game plan, increased spending on programs that would not be sustainable in the new fiscal environment and failed to downsize the district in a timely fashion.

At a time when she could have been a strong voice persuading City Council to provide the funds she and the mayor requested, her multiple self-inflicted wounds made her a liability with detractors in Council, in the General Assembly, and among the advocacy community and large segments of the public.

What do we need in a school leader of a large, urban district? The job involves more than academics. It involves overseeing logistics like food services, transportation, facilities management, safety, and dealing with a multitude of unions and stakeholders of different colors, languages and political persuasions. And, of course, it requires sound fiscal management.

In an era when public schools are no longer the monopoly they used to be, the district's leader needs to have the skills and willingness to build public support and woo key funders - the city and state as well as the private and nonprofit sectors. He or she needs to be inclusive, build trust and treat others with respect.

It is, I believe, the most difficult, and perhaps most thankless, public-sector job in the city. But Ackerman has been handsomely paid for it.

A public salesperson she is not. She may be better suited for being a chief academic officer or the professor of education that she was at Columbia University than serving as the chief executive of a complex bureaucracy in a diverse city. Her track record in other cities foreshadowed some of the issues we are now facing.

Although her defenders cite increasing test scores, the fact is that virtually every superintendent in the commonwealth's 501 school districts can say the same thing, as could - and did - her predecessors from Hornbeck on. A top aide to former Gov. Ed Rendell recently attributed improved test scores to increased state funding during the Rendell years. (And let's not forget No Child Left Behind, which placed a new emphasis on testing.)

The memorandum of understanding entered into by the district, the mayor and the commonwealth this month is a testament to Ackerman's failings and those of the SRC. The document, which commits the school district to a new level of disclosure, is not the result of simply her political miscue on full-day kindergarten, but a growing frustration with having a superintendent who is not inclusive, communicative or transparent. The memorandum reads more like a child-custody agreement than a productive agreement among partners. It is a statement of distrust, not trust.

It's difficult to see how Ackerman, who is used to doing what she wants, could or would want to adjust to the new work constraints she now faces.

A divorce settlement now seems to be in the interest of all parties, including Corbett, whose administration deserves to have a say in who is at the helm of the district, which is a state agency largely funded by state dollars.

Unconscionably, four months ago, as the fiscal tsunami was coming ashore, the SRC extended Ackerman's contract for an additional year until June 2014, thus increasing the cost of any payout.

Her severance package will be a tough pill for the public to swallow. But sometimes you have to take some lousy-tasting medicine to get better. And nothing is more important now than restoring the health of our public-school system.

Phil Goldsmith is a columnist for It's Our Money (www.ourmoneyphilly.com), a project of the Daily News and WHYY funded by the William Penn Foundation. He served as interim chief executive officer of the school district from 2000 to 2001.

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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