John Baer: Don't buy out Ackerman - fire her, state rep says

(left) and School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie (behind Nutter) are feeling the pressure to get rid of Arlene Ackerman (center) as superintendent.YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
(left) and School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie (behind Nutter) are feeling the pressure to get rid of Arlene Ackerman (center) as superintendent.YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER (Mayor Nutter)
Posted: July 27, 2011

SOMEWHERE in the city's academic community, or even in its business community, there's an answer to the management of the public-school system.

That answer is not Arlene Ackerman.

The besieged incumbent superintendent is all but certain to be gone soon, either with an inexcusably lucrative taxpayer-funded severance, or by dismissal for cause.

The "all but certain" caveat applies, only because for either of these outcomes to occur it means the powers that oversee the district need to strap on a set, and I mean now.

And that means burying the race card, burying the gender card and making decisions that move the district past the problem that the superintendent has become.

Philly state Rep. Michael McGeehan, who calls for Ackerman's ouster, just sent letters to Gov. Corbett and Mayor Nutter urging that they oppose a reported $1.5 million severance package that would accompany an early buyout of Ackerman's contract.

"There's no public support for paying her that," McGeehan says.

He notes that the district has suffered from, among other things, questionable contract practices, an investigation into possible cheating on standardized tests and a huge budget hole that led to higher taxes.

He adds that Ackerman, since '08, has already made more than $1 million in salary, raises and bonuses, and that the governor and mayor should use "the power of their offices" to prevent her from doubling the take.

The Mayor's Office says it hasn't received McGeehan's letter, which was sent Friday, and declines to comment.

The Governor's Office says the governor and state Education secretary are "reviewing" McGeehan's recommendations but not yet prepared to comment.

Schools communications chief Jamilah Fraser says Ackerman is "here and committed to the kids of Philadelphia." Asked about negotiations for a buyout, she says, "There are a lot of rumors."

I suspect because they're true.

Even in the unlikely event they aren't, Ackerman soon faces the potential of a cheating scandal that could devastate her argument about improved test scores.

The state Department of Education has a report on '09 scores raising red flags in 29 schools. The district is to respond to the report within about two weeks.

State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis tells me that if that response "doesn't pass the logic test, we will go in and look much deeper."

The state is also looking at test results from other recent years.

But the basic problem is broader than scores, management or even Ackerman.

The basic problem is a Philly culture that insists on bringing in highly touted, overcompensated "saviors" with sports-star-type contract provisions that pay them not to play - Paul Vallas and Carl Greene are two other examples.

So the question is this: Is the city so self-loathing that it can't find a homegrown leader who knows the lay of the land and cares enough to work for something for less than the compensation of the president of the United States?

These unconscionable public contracts must end. The wishy-washy School Reform Commission should find a spine. The mayor (who has to be fed up) and the governor must be more proactive in resolving the Ackerman issue.

When I ask McGeehan why he's the only one of the city's 33-member legislative delegation speaking out, he says, "Because you get labeled: racist, sexist, hate children. Let's be honest here - nobody wants such labels."

Which is why labels need to be torn out of this; why decisions need to be based on what's best for kids, parents and taxpayers, not what's best for just one person.

For recent columns, go to Read Baer's blog at BaerGrowls.

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