Effort to raise funds for Ackerman buyout falls short

The effort to raise $405,000 in private funds to help buy out former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman’s contract has fallen short and as a result, the Philadelphia School District must pay the entire $905,000, officials said this afternoon.

District lawyers had been weighing whether to withhold the payout because Ackerman had publicly criticized a top district finance official despite the fact that her separation agreement prohibits her from making disparaging remarks.

But the school district decided to make the payment and keep the agreement intact, they announced in a six-paragraph statement. Today was the deadline for the district to pay Ackerman under the agreement.

Officials acknowledged that they were unable to raise all of the $405,000 in private donations that they initially said they had pledges for. They declined to be specific on how much was raised or who exactly had contributed.

They blamed the failure on public pressure against keeping the donors anonymous. State Auditor General Jack Wagner notified the district by letter last week that his office was auditing the buyout agreement. Among the objectives was to uncover the identities of the donors.

There was widespread speculation last week that one or more of the donors had backed out due to public scrutiny.

The district has asked Philadelphia’s Children First Fund, a non-profit that was collecting the donations, to return the money.

The payout brings to an end the just over three-year controversial tenure of Ackerman, who came to the district from an education post at Columbia University.

Ackerman’s attorney confirmed the buyout.

“The settlement has occurred. The checks have been deposited," said Dean Weitzman, the attorney.

After her resignation, Ackerman went on a media blitz, offering interviews to a radio station, television station and a national education publication. She ripped chief financial officer Michael Masch on WURD-AM (900) in talking about the district's $600-million-plus budget hole. She said she asked him to resign.

Ackerman’s separation agreement says she may not make public comments "or disseminate any private or confidential information" about the School Reform Commission or senior members of the district's administration that are "malicious, wanton, or reckless," or that are "reasonably foreseeable to injure their reputations."

District officials announced last week that they would review Ackerman’s comments to determine if they violate the agreement.

In a statement sent this evening, the School Reform Commission said:

"The SRC is aware that questions have been raised about recent statements made by Dr. Ackerman. As stated last week, the SRC disagrees with these assertions.  We also believe that it is a better use of the School District’s resources to focus our time and energy on ensuring that this school year is as successful as possible.

Since the terms of the settlement agreement became public two weeks ago, there has been considerable discussion of the plan to supplant some public monies with contributions from private donors who requested anonymity as a precondition of donation.

From the start, the School Reform Commission sought to keep the public cost of this agreement to a minimum. But the public concerns about the use of anonymous private donations led almost all donors to withdraw their pledges to contribute to the Philadelphia’s Children First Fund.  The SRC accordingly, asked the Philadelphia Children’s First Fund to return any donations it has received in connection with our request of it to accept funds on behalf of the District for this purpose.

As a result, the payment to Dr. Ackerman does not include payments from anonymous private donors. Instead, all funds to Dr. Ackerman are public dollars from the Philadelphia School District.

Yesterday, the District had a tremendously successful opening of schools and a great first day.  We intend to move forward and return our focus to the important work before us of building a system of great schools for all of our children."