Concerns rise over leadership of Philadelphia schools

Posted: June 08, 2011

In City Hall last Thursday afternoon, a select group of officials sat with Mayor Nutter in his office, exchanging the latest information and strategy ideas on how to accomplish their unified mission of securing more money from Harrisburg to help close the Philadelphia School District's $629 million deficit.

Those at the meeting included Nutter's chief of staff, Clay Armbrister; city Finance Director Rob Dubow; School District Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman; School District Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch; and State Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia, ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Ackerman made no mention then of what she would announce 24 hours later, that she had decided to shift federal funds to preserve all-day kindergarten classes that were in jeopardy of being cut.

Among those stunned to learn the news Friday, just one hour before she publicly announced it, were Nutter, who has been lobbying City Council for tax increases to provide new school dollars, and Hughes, who had met with seven Council members to try to emphasize the importance of the city's putting up some cash to help draw more money from Harrisburg.

Tensions grew and frustrations have been publicly acknowledged in the days since. But the mayor has not called for Ackerman's resignation, the School Reform Commission that hired her appears staunchly in her court, and it looks as if Ackerman, though confronting a loss of confidence by trusted political allies, is at the moment staying put.

The superintendent, whose contract expires in 2014, later said she viewed her late-in-the-game decision as "educational" and not meant to "embarrass" Nutter - who two days later established a deadline of noon Thursday for the School Reform Commission to sign onto a new "education accountability agreement" to give the mayor greater oversight and knowledge of the district's finances.

On Tuesday, meeting in Harrisburg with lawmakers, Nutter sought to draw attention away from any tensions with Ackerman and toward the need to find more school dollars.

"We're all adults, something happened, let's move on," the mayor said. "I've been around for a while and I'm a pretty sensitive guy, but I'm not that sensitive."

The schools' deficit is more than six times as large as the $73 million hole schools chief Paul Vallas faced in 2007. That morass contributed to his icy relationship with Mayor John F. Street and the School Reform Commission, eventually leading to his decision to leave for a job in New Orleans.

While some wonder whether Ackerman's days are numbered, there are no signs that she is ready to depart.

"We are definitely working together," said Nutter. "Last week was last week, and I've moved on. . . . This is a mission, and we have to stay focused on the main objective. And the main objective is to ensure high-quality education options for our children."

He deflected a reporter's question about whether Ackerman was a distraction, saying the focus should be on children and not "adult behavior and personalities and politics."

But clearly, School District woes are a growing concern in Harrisburg. On the House floor Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Michael McGeehan, who represents a Northeast Philadelphia district, was pushing several amendments, including one that would give the legislature the authority to remove superintendents in certain districts, including "distressed" districts such as Philadelphia. The amendment failed, but not without impassioned debate.

"The frustration level in Philadelphia is boiling over," McGeehan said. "The SRC is not responsive. Not to anyone - not to the mayor, and not to the citizens of Philadelphia."

Hughes, who disagreed that support for Ackerman was "dwindling," reiterated Nutter's view that the current priority is finding financial support.

Yet Ackerman on Friday seemed to weaken the best leverage to secure extra dollars, saying all-day kindergarten would be kept even though no additional money had been promised.

She also raised questions anew about her leadership and the School District's management structure.

"She has suffered tremendous impairments to her effectiveness, with the most recent one being this latest maneuver," said City Controller Alan Butkovitz, whose office reported several accounting issues in a recent School District audit.

Butkovitz said Ackerman and the district could not afford to lose political friends given the absence or reduced influence now of several onetime legislative allies, including former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, who is in prison; ex-Rep. John M. Perzel, a former House speaker who lost a bid for reelection and is awaiting trial in the "Bonusgate" legislative corruption probe; and State Rep. Dwight Evans, who last year lost his longtime post as ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

"That legislative power team has been decapitated, and the School District as a separate entity has no power base in Harrisburg," Butkovitz said.

"She had done some good things and done some bad things, but this one really has hurt her cause," Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said of Ackerman.

Ackerman technically reports to the five-member School Reform Commission, made up of three members appointed by the governor and two by the mayor. All are part-time volunteer positions. One seat, controlled by Gov. Corbett, is vacant.

After a decade in existence, the commission is increasingly under scrutiny, with questions about whether it has the ability to oversee the mammoth district. "What we have had for the most part is a hands-off management of the schools by the School Reform Commission, a revolving door of School Reform Commission members, and superintendents that I'd like to call rogue, but that's not quite fair, since nobody is even trying very hard to manage them," said Zack Stalberg, president of the nonprofit government watchdog group Committee of Seventy.

School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. did not return a call Tuesday.

Stalberg called Ackerman's action Friday "a self-serving political blunder" and said "support for her is not what it was a few days ago."

David L. Cohen, a confidant of Ed Rendell, the former mayor and governor, noted that Nutter was working hard within the "strained governance construct" and said, "Ultimately, it's the mayor who has to be in charge of public education in Philadelphia."

Added Cohen, who has seen his share of School District and other bureaucratic battles: "In my experience, good things almost never happen when the superintendent ends up at cross purposes with the mayor."


City Council this week will discuss panhandling, the DROP pension program, and the sweet drinks and property tax proposals. Follow Inquirer coverage each day via Twitter @phillyinquirer and at www.philly.com/citycouncil


Contact staff writer Marcia Gelbart at 215-854-2338 or mgelbart@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writers Angela Couloumbis, Kristen A. Graham, and Martha Woodall contributed to this article.

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