Last week, the situation turned from curious to bizarre:
City School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman strode into an auditorium as the sound system blared her own musical soundtrack, Sade's "Is It a Crime?" Then she publicly challenged her bosses to decide quickly whether she stays or goes.
"I dare you," she said.
In fact, people familiar with the situation say, Ackerman could be gone any day - and likely before schools open Sept. 6 - ending an extraordinary standoff that has left the 155,000-student system unsettled and adrift. This week could prove climactic, with a School Reform Commission meeting scheduled for Wednesday.
"Everybody I talk to is miserable, feeling very, very lost in terms of direction and in terms of leadership," said Deidre Farmbry, who was acting superintendent in 2001.
How did it come to this?
In interviews, union heads, government leaders, teachers, students, and former city education executives described a superintendency undone by poor decisions and political missteps crowned by an unwillingness to compromise and a management style that many took for arrogance.
Her administration has been criticized over its handling of school violence, and a government report has flagged dozens of schools for potential improprieties on state exams. The district's budget this year came up more than $650 million short, forcing dramatic and painful cuts.
Ackerman's supporters, however, insist she has been unfairly blamed, pointing out that scores on standardized tests have gone up in each of the last nine years. They say that whatever her faults, no one cares more about poor, inner-city students than Ackerman.
"She's superintendent for all the people," said Cynthia Alston, a West Philadelphia resident. "All the people."
Ackerman has been cheered for trying to engage and involve parents in education - a challenge in Philadelphia - and for pouring money into poor schools.
"She's so right on the substance" - but short on execution, said Katherine Conner, associate superintendent under David Hornbeck in the 1990s.
Conner cited the $7.5 million, no-bid emergency contract for school surveillance cameras that was awarded to a small minority contractor, IBS Communications Inc. The firm got the job after Ackerman, according to district sources, abruptly directed her staff to have IBS replace a company that had begun preliminary work.
The whole episode, Conner said, was "a very clumsy attempt to address the issue of minority hiring."
Efforts to contact Ackerman for this article were unsuccessful. In recent days, however, she has been vocal about her situation.
"Is it a crime to stand up for children instead of stooping down into the political sandbox and selling our children for a politician's victory?" she asked the audience during the principals' meeting Thursday at Lincoln High School.
One politician she crossed, either deliberately or inadvertently, was Mayor Nutter.
In June, confronted with a $629 million budget gap, Ackerman warned that full-day kindergarten would be eliminated.
The mayor and other city leaders prepared to storm Harrisburg to win new money.
But at the last minute, Ackerman announced that she had her own plan to save full-day kindergarten - undercutting Nutter's credibility with state legislators.
In budget talks, she struggled to communicate the specific financial needs of the schools - which sped the erosion of support from Nutter and the SRC, said Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown.
"Philadelphia has seen unprecedented improvement in our education system over the past three years," Reynolds Brown said. "She certainly deserves the credit. . . . But the other side of that coin is that, at the end of the day, she also needs the confidence of her bosses, who include the SRC, the mayor, and the governor, because we rely on them for governance and funding."
The Inquirer reported last week that top business executives had received calls asking them to donate to a charitable education organization that would then contribute money to help buy out Ackerman's contract. Ackerman last week denied that she was in buyout talks "right now."
She came to the district in 2008 carrying the credibility of someone who had worked in the classroom, having taught in elementary and middle school before rising to run districts in Washington and San Francisco.
But affection from city teachers cooled, said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, over what they saw as an autocratic management style.
"People were afraid to open their mouths," he said.
One who did - English teacher Hope Moffett, 25 - became a cause célèbre. The district tried to fire her after she publicly criticized plans to turn Audenried High into a charter school. The effort to dismiss Moffett, accused of wrongly allowing students to attend an outside protest, was dropped after the union filed a First Amendment lawsuit.
Ackerman also upset teachers by instituting a scripted curriculum in many schools. She suggested that some deep-seated problems were teachers' faults. And she called for more teachers to be disciplined and dismissed.
She made no apologies.
"I don't play games," Ackerman said in a 2009 interview. "What you see is what you get."
What many saw was an unwillingness to compromise, or to hear and consider outside views.
When 30 Asian students were attacked Dec. 3, 2009, at South Philadelphia High, Ackerman stood behind principal LaGreta Brown - later found to have been working without valid state certification.
But Ackerman refused to meet with about 50 Asian students who staged a boycott for safer conditions. During negotiations to set up a meeting, she insisted it would have to be held on school property, without the presence of the students' adult supporters.
"I remember vividly one of the students saying, 'This is like the Cold War,' " said Nancy Nguyen, head of the local chapter of Boat People SOS, a Vietnamese advocacy group. "To me, that was the introduction into what her administration was going to be like."
After 12 days, Ackerman met with students and community leaders at a Chinatown church, ending the boycott.
Councilman Bill Green was incensed that she had taken so long.
"There was a lack of attention to detail," he said.
A federal civil-rights inquiry into the events surrounding Dec. 3 found that the district was "deliberately indifferent" to violence and harassment against Asians, prompting a settlement that mandated broad remedies.
South Philadelphia High was hardly the only violent school.
A seven-part Inquirer series published in the spring found that more than 30,000 serious incidents had occurred in city schools during the previous five years. On any given day, 25 students, teachers, or other staff members were beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted, or victimized by violent offenders.
"Right now, the community has no trust in the School District," said Bach Tong, who transferred to Science Leadership Academy after the violence and helped form the city Asian Students Association.
On Thursday, Ackerman told reporters after the principals' meeting that she did not know if she still had the support of SRC Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr.
"I'm superintendent today, and I hope to be superintendent tomorrow," she said. "I think it's important for this school system that we move on. I'm at peace with whatever decision they make."
Paying the piper. Karen Heller, A2.