DN Editorial: Who paid for Ackerman to go?

Posted: August 23, 2011

ARLENE ACKERMAN IS gone, with a check for $905,000 ($980,000 if you include benefits).

But the problems of the school district aren't gone.

In fact, many of the district's problems can be found in how the School Reform Commission was able to cut that check: not only the $500,000 that taxpayers have paid for her to end her contract, but in the $405,000 remainder coming from private donors.

Generating private money probably seemed like a good idea at first: avoid a legal fight over severance pay and save taxpayers a few bucks. And we suppose we could be grateful that the public was only on the hook for a third of the $1.5 million her contract called for to get her out of town.

But that's the kind of cold comfort that we might take being told to be grateful the bulldozer ran over only one of our legs instead of both of them.

The $400,000 charitable contributions from unnamed and anonymous private citizens is being channeled through Philadelphia's Children First, a nonprofit organization created to supplement the school district's public funding . . . for improving public education.

While this funneling is undoubtedly legal, it sure is sketchy. For one thing, charitable donations aren't allowed to be earmarked for any individual recipient's benefit, and these were pretty clearly meant for Ackerman's pocket book. The SRC had to have found some workaround that makes it look as if the money is going to the district, and not straight to Ackerman.

Even sketchier: Children First is housed in the offices of SRC head Robert Archie's law firm. And Archie, Ackerman, and Leroy Nunery, acting superintendent, sit on the board. Isn't there a conflict of interest in soliciting donations that will go to one of its board members?

The secrecy of the donors is also problematic: It's fair to ask what those donors might expect in return for their "investment." Since they're anonymous, we'll never be able to know if some of that return is in future district contracts. (That Mayor Nutter made calls soliciting some of those donations is problematic, too, if donors saw their checks as a way to cozy up to the mayor.)

Secretive arrangements from private citizens to buy out a public servant's contract, with no accountability and no explanation is obviously disturbing. These donations not only help the SRC dodge the political bullet of having to justify spending $1.5 million in public dollars, but helps them dodge the bullet of having negotiated that unsustainable contract to begin with.

The donations, and the secrecy surrounding them - as well as Archie's and the SRC's silence on these arrangements yesterday - stand as a stinging indictment of the governance the SRC has provided in the last three years - or failed to provide. Tomorrow, we'll detail some of these failings, and ways this should be fixed, before the next superintendent signs another expensive contract.

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