Inquirer Editorial: Ackerman is ousted, so what's next?

Posted: August 23, 2011

It's a shame that it had to end this way - with Philadelphia schools Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman being unceremoniously shown the door - but to a large extent the educator's demise was self-inflicted.

For someone who had led two other large, urban school districts, Ackerman showed none of the political and public-relations savvy that's necessary to survive in such a venomous environment.

Knowing today's big-city superintendents rarely last five years, she nonetheless refused to tone down what was widely perceived as an imperious demeanor so that the public would pay more attention to her praiseworthy attempts to better educate Philadelphia's children.

Ackerman and the district reached terms Monday to part company immediately, ending months of speculation about her fate as the leader of the eighth-largest school district in the country. The end came as no surprise. It had become obvious for weeks that Ackerman had to go. With school starting soon, the only question was when.

Ackerman's attorney, Robert Nix, correctly summed up her departure as "the best thing for everyone," in particular the city's schoolchildren, who have been overshadowed by the messy breakup. Now, interim Superintendent Leroy D. Nunery II must restore stability and set the right tone for the new school year.

Ackerman's departure comes with a hefty price tag: $905,000 to buy out her contract, which was not set to expire until June 2014. Some of that payout will come from private sources, an unusual arrangement that warrants more scrutiny.

But it would have cost the cash-strapped district more to keep a marginalized chief executive who had clearly lost the confidence of Mayor Nutter, the School Reform Commission, and the public. During her tumultuous three-year stint, Ackerman's personality often overshadowed her good intentions.

But a good portion of the blame for that must be laid at the feet of the SRC and its overly accommodating chairman, Robert L. Archie. By largely rubber-stamping Ackerman's decisions, they failed to provide the guidance that any superintendent needs to perform well.

The SRC has brought into question whether it should continue to exist. If the state-created entity isn't going to provide useful oversight, then it may be time to return control of Philadelphia's schools to an entity that answers more directly to the public instead of politicians.

For her part, Ackerman never fully embraced Philadelphia's admittedly exasperating ways. Her delayed response to racial tension at South Philadelphia High School was a crucial blunder. By failing to immediately embrace Asian students who had been beaten mostly by blacks, she came across as aloof, or even playing racial favorites.

By not keeping the mayor apprised of her specific plans to handle a $629 million budget deficit, she undermined his efforts to get Harrisburg to kick in some more cash. As a result, she lost a powerful political ally who might have done more to save her in the end.

Give Ackerman credit for what she did accomplish. Test scores and the graduation rate are up. She negotiated a groundbreaking contract with the teachers' union. She even agreed to forgo some of the salary she is owed to help fund her Promise Academies. But her parting was necessary. She no longer had the backing she needs to succeed.

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