Ackerman’s failure


Dr. Arlene C. Ackerman has managed to make herself the most controversial Philadelphia school superintendent in the history of this town. That is no small feat in a city where its public schools are always in the headlines for the wrong reasons, and its school superintendent a focal point for all the turmoil. Folks either wanted to canonize Ackerman or hold a fundraiser to buy out her contract. The folks who wanted Ackerman to be sent packing won the day.

Ackerman is not the first superintendent in this city to fall into disfavor. Paul Vallas, left in 2007 before the end of his contract. Years ago, I used to think Mark Shedd was a curse word. But none stirred the ire of the public like Ackerman. Some of her supporters believed the reason was racial, and we know big city politics always has race as a key component. And while it is true that previous school superintendents have encountered budget shortfalls, none of them had a $629-million shortfall.

There were other more serious charges against Ackerman. She gave the appearance of someone willing to bypass procurement regulations to reward her friends. A recent example was the Inquirer article that detailed Ackerman’s numerous dinners with Melonease Shaw, a political consultant and lobbyist, who wound up getting about $269,000 in district contracts. And while nothing illegal was proven, the appearance of impropriety in government contracting is itself wrong. It also showed the tin ear that Ackerman displayed when it came to her dealings with the public and the politicians on whom the City’s school district depends for support.

Ackerman violated a cardinal rule of politics: You don’t make enemies of the folks who pay your bills. She seemingly went out of her way to turn off the mayor, City Council, the School Reform Commission and some important folks in Harrisburg. If you want to be an effective advocate for your schools, you must learn how to shmooze. At a time when budgets are being cut, you need important friends to minimize the impact on your own budget. Ackerman never learned that basic lesson.

Her disdain for good PR even hurt her in dealing with the racial violence at South Philadelphia High School. Without investigating the crisis, she was all too ready to dismiss the systematic attacks upon Asian students as an isolated incident that bore equal blame.

Some of Ackerman’s critics are not without some hypocrisy of their own. There are folks in this city who only care about the public schools when there are budget problems. They don’t give a fig about the kids. It is all about keeping the cost down. Unless there’s a violent incident or a budget shortfall, the words “public school” are never spoken. The history in Philadelphia is the stronger advocate for the public schools. This City’s school problems are not different from those faced by other big cities and a good segment of the public just wants them to go away.

Ackerman’s base salary of about $348,000 a year for five years plus additional perks was itself in controversy. Her critics seemed to blame Ackerman for the admittedly generous contract, but she didn’t hold a gun to anyone’s head to negotiate a $905,000 buyout. When the City gave Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey a $60,000 bump in salary to $225,000 a year, making him the highest paid city employee, hardly anyone batted an eyebrow. The City wanted to keep Ramsey from leaving to go to Chicago and they paid the going rate for a big city police commissioner.

Ackerman’s big initiative, Imagine 2014 that includes her Promise Academies, has yielded uncertain results. It seems the idea of focusing on improving poor-performing schools is a no-brainer. People across the nation who know nothing about education emphasize test scores as the measurement for evaluating progress. I recommend they watch season four of “The Wire,” which graphically predicts what happens when higher test scores are your major focus. Obliging the bureaucrats, Ackerman presided over rising test scores while she was here. Stories about cheating are now emerging and being investigated. When pressure is applied to a school superintendent to improve test scores, it is passed on down the line, so teachers and students get the message. Test scores can be manipulated just like crime statistics to give the public what it wants to hear. Don’t blame Ackerman; blame the system.

You look at Ackerman’s record and you wonder how an obviously talented educator with 40 years of experience at all levels of education working her way up the ladder, could not learn how to survive in Philadelphia. Ackerman is no naive rookie. She was the school superintendent in Washington and San Francisco before she was brought here. Her record is one of having improved academics at every stop.

Her failure here is evident. Much of it was her own fault. Yet, there is the nagging thought we have reached the point in this city where no one can succeed at running our public schools. Ackerman is gone, but ultimately her failure, and yes, our failure, will have its biggest impact on our kids. SPR


Contact the South Philly Review at