Ackerman: Nutter's protest of unemployment benefits 'disingenuous'

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In this photo from September, Arlene Ackerman addresses the annual convocation of principals at Lincoln High School. (CLEM MURRAY/File photo)

As controversy over her decision to apply for unemployment benefits continued, former School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman on Wednesday took a shot at Mayor Nutter for his criticism of her move.

In an e-mail to The Inquirer, Ackerman noted that her separation agreement - which preserves her right to file for unemployment - "was approved by Mayor Nutter and made public. His outcry and that of others (including the media) of disbelief appears to me to be really disingenuous."

Ackerman is attempting to collect $573 a week in unemployment benefits on top of the nearly $1 million payout she received from the Philadelphia School District in September.

Nutter said Tuesday he found it "astounding" that Ackerman applied for the benefit given the district's dire financial straits.

Ackerman declined to be interviewed by The Inquirer.

"There appears to be no real interest (from the media) in understanding the full scope of my tenure as superintendent and the circumstances under which I was forced from my job because of the political whims of this mayor and other high-profile politicians," she wrote.

Ackerman said Nutter's motivations were political and the media were interested only in "selling papers/news . . . which ultimately is about making money, isn't it?"

Nutter, through spokesman Mark McDonald, said: "Her actions speak for her, and I have nothing more to say."

By signing off on Ackerman's buyout agreement, the district is forbidden from attempting to block Ackerman's unemployment claim.

But State Rep. Michael McGeehan on Wednesday appealed to Julia Hearthway, Pennsylvania's secretary of labor and industry, to deny the claim.

"The department should declare that she's ineligible to collect," McGeehan said. "It's beyond the pale at this point. We have a serious unemployment problem in this state and for someone who was the highest-paid public official in Pennsylvania, someone who got a sweetheart deal, to apply for unemployment is just pure arrogance and greed."

Sean Yeakle, spokesman for the state Labor Department, said he had not seen McGeehan's letter and could not comment on any specific unemployment case.

"Generally, the unemployment system is clearly in need of reform," said Yeakle.

It's on the way, the spokesman said. Beginning Jan. 1, legislation signed by Gov. Corbett will require anyone with a large severance package to tap into it before receiving unemployment benefits.

Ackerman's attorney has said that his client, who paid into the system, is merely "taking that which she's entitled to take."

The former superintendent, who left Philadelphia in August, was paid $348,000 annually under a contract extended to 2014. After a bitter public battle over district leadership, Ackerman left with a $905,000 lump-sum payment, plus $83,000 in unused vacation and personal days. It was later revealed that Ackerman was subject to extreme political pressure while in her job in Philadelphia.

Based on her salary, if approved, she would receive the maximum weekly benefit, $573, minus the amount of the pensions.

It's not clear whether Ackerman will receive any unemployment benefits before Jan. 1. If she is approved, the district would bear 100 percent of the cost because it is self-insured for unemployment compensation.

District officials said they would release details of $14 million in new budget cuts - which will likely include layoffs and program eliminations - on Thursday. That's on top of deep cuts already made to bridge a $629 million budget gap.

Several city high school students attending a leadership development program at Temple University on Wednesday said Ackerman's decision to seek unemployment benefits could further harm their cash-strapped schools.

"You're wasting taxpayers' money that we could be using for schools," said Jhneanelle Lewis, 18, a senior at Parkway Northwest High School, a district magnet school. "We barely have enough for books." She said students have to share precalculus books.

Junior Sarah Martinez, 16, said the issue of Ackerman's unemployment compensation was the talk of her school, Franklin Learning Center, also a district magnet.

"Her purpose was taking care of kids," Martinez said. "Now, you're taking money from the kids?"

 


Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.