Karen Heller: Ackerman calls the tune; we pay the piper

Another leadership lapse leaves the city - yes, including children - to suffer the result.

Some high-powered, deep-pocketed businessmen are trying to help buy out embattled School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. Which suggests more of us should look into the potentially lucrative field of messing up.

The money would be funneled through the charitable nonprofit Philadelphia's Children First Fund, set up to assist the School District, which, under Ackerman's watch, developed a $650 million budgetary crater.

If this effort succeeds, the charity should be renamed Philadelphia's Superintendent First Fund.

"She hasn't had control of the School District since the day she arrived," said a prominent executive who balked when he got the phone call asking for money.

The School Reform Commission asked executives to help raise the money, the caller told the business leader. The plan was to solicit anonymous donations for $350,000 of the $850,000 minimum required to make Ackerman go away.

Are the donations ethical when the district is in such trouble that it's asking teachers and other workers' unions to make $75 million in concessions? Shouldn't the money go to students first, teachers second, and the superintendent maybe never?

"In a way, this is a political contribution," says legal ethicist and Penn professor emeritus Geoffrey Hazard. "This is a de-election campaign," adding, "What they're really doing is rescuing the school board from its own folly."

This may be a perfect teaching moment in Philadelphia politics. Here we have another weak, kowtowing board overrun by an imperious autocrat who fosters a cult of personality, a reactive mayor unwilling to take control of the problem, and the permanent power establishment working behind the scenes to fix a problem the board made in the first place.

Mayor Nutter likes to boast about how clean his administration is. True, but the problem is he hates getting dirty, handling tough negotiations with unions or City Council. His aversion is a foolish approach in this city.

Now, on the eve of a second term, it's time for Nutter to clean up the mess at the School District, which has dragged on for too long. He appointed Robert L. Archie Jr., now chairman, to the SRC. Right in the middle of the budget morass, the board extended Ackerman's fat contract, automatically boosting her payout. At this point, Archie and Ackerman, once allies, are reportedly not speaking to each other, straight out of a school-cafeteria scenario.

Ackerman did not come quietly to this city, and she won't go out cheaply. That wasn't her style in San Francisco, where she sued, seeking more than $172,000 for nonpayment of salary and other compensation.

The superintendent has scripted the diva handbook. At a principals' meeting Thursday, she began her farewell tour, entering the hall to the tune of Sade's "Is It a Crime?" ("Is it a crime that I still want you? And I want you to want me, too.") I am not making this up.

From now on, I want every civic leader to enter meetings to musical accompaniment. Also, Nutter should rap old school as much as possible, particularly during contentious moments with Council.

Ackerman did what she called "a happy dance." I want other leaders to dance, too. She led the assembled in Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' "Wake Up Everybody." She cajoled, "Go ahead. Sentence me. I dare you. Or set me free," sounding so like Miss Diana Ross. She recited Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise," one section of which reads:

Does my haughtiness offend


Don't you take it awful hard

'Cause I laugh like I've got gold


Diggin' in my own back yard.

 Perhaps she's aware of the gold-mine fund drive occurring among the powerful.

All that was missing was "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." Then again, Ackerman denies being in contract talks "right now." Oscars have been given for less.

It's all about the children, Ackerman is fond of saying. Business leaders ought to know that, too.

Meanwhile, her district is in crisis and deep in debt, and school starts in 16 days.


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller