Ackerman's brief tenure does not merit bonus

Arlene Ackerman, Phila. superintendent of schools, made $390,000 this year. However, her performance record is unimpressive.
Arlene Ackerman, Phila. superintendent of schools, made $390,000 this year. However, her performance record is unimpressive.
Posted: May 23, 2010

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission must be watching a different Arlene Ackerman than I am.

That's the only way to explain why the SRC gave the Philadelphia school superintendent a $65,000 bonus on top of her $325,000 salary.

SRC Chairman Robert Archie cited a list of Ackerman's accomplishments to support the bonus. It included negotiating a new teacher contract, developing a strategic plan, hiring 200 school counselors, and holding lots of meetings with parents.

Maybe I'm missing something, but that sounds a lot like a basic job description.

Apparently, the performance review didn't deduct points for the turnover of Ackerman's management team; the botched attempt to change the admission process for the city magnet schools; or her handling of the attacks on Asian students at South Philadelphia High.

Ackerman, who started in June 2008, is reportedly about to hire her fourth chief of staff and third chief academic officer. There's more stability coaching the Sixers.

Around the same time Ackerman received her bonus, she announced a hiring freeze for teachers. The district then proposed a $3.2 billion budget that increases spending 4.5 percent, but decreases the number of teachers by 50.

That means spending millions more for less.

That's not the right direction for a district rife with school violence and a dropout rate of about 50 percent. If anything, the school district seems adrift.

Ackerman's plan to improve the schools has been slow coming and mainly addresses just a handful of the worst schools. This is a district in need of big, bold, and swift action.

In short order, many parents and teachers have already lost confidence in Ackerman. Some are just marking time until she leaves.

Despite the turmoil, Ackerman maintains an oblivion reminiscent of Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman: "What, me worry?"

Her oversight of a controversial plan to change the admissions requirements at the city's magnet schools was puzzling. These are the few high-performing public schools in the city. As such, they don't need fixing.

It's also where many of the well-connected city elites and pols send their kids to school. Any politically astute leader would have tread carefully.

But Ackerman put the plan in motion. Once it became public, there was swift pushback. Ackerman quickly ditched the plan and claimed she wasn't aware of all the details. She either knew or should have known given the stakes.

For better or worse, Ackerman's handling of the South Philly High attacks has become the defining moment of her brief tenure.

About 30 Asian American students were attacked during and after school by a group of mostly African American students last December. Several students were injured and had to be treated at the hospital.

The attacks should have been a two- or three-day media event. But Ackerman's slow and halfhearted response allowed the story to smolder.

Six months later, Asian students say they remain targets of daily harassment and violence. Rather than confront the issue and work to resolve the tensions, Ackerman threw a pile of money at the problem, spending almost $700,000 on security cameras. A lack of cameras was not the reason for the attacks.

The district's own report on the December incident documented a day of chaos inside the school that was made worse by poor communication and bad decisions by principal LaGreta Brown. Ackerman backed Brown after the attacks, when it was clear the principal had mismanaged the situation.

Brown resigned recently after it was discovered that she didn't have the proper state certificate to be a principal. After that public embarrassment, the district disclosed that 15 other principals are working without the required state certification.

Innocent oversights perhaps. But combined with the other mishaps, the administration looks shaky.

At the very least, it was obvious that Brown shouldn't have been hired. She had resigned from the Atlantic City School District ahead of a vote by the school board to fire her. Teachers there said Brown created a hostile environment.

Despite those red flags, Brown was put in charge of a troubled school that had churned through several principals in recent years. Now another school year at South Philadelphia High has essentially been lost. The violence and racial tension continue to overshadow the learning.

Ackerman said recently that the teaching staff there is racially divided. Yet, she seems unaware that her comments, actions, and backing of an unqualified principal helped to spur the divide.

The series of glaring missteps has overshadowed Ackerman's accomplishments. Lucky for her, the SRC seems like a puppet. Maybe that's why Ackerman got a big bonus for a job not very well done.


Contact Paul Davies at 215-854-5067 or pdavies@phillynews.com.

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