Acting Philly schools chief Nunery facing tough path forward

Posted: August 23, 2011

The new leader of the Philadelphia school system - at least for now, and perhaps permanently - is known for molding consensus and moving forward.

Leroy Nunery II, the deputy to now-departed Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, was named acting superintendent Monday, taking control of a troubled and adrift 155,000-student system.

Nunery, 55, hired by the district a year ago, has a reputation as a consensus-builder and an urbane administrator with a voice as deep and melodious as an FM deejay's. He also is seen as close to Ackerman, and thus tainted by the failures of her administration.

In an interview hours after being named, Nunery said that with city schools to open in just 15 days, he was focused on the immediate future - signing contracts, hiring teachers, and scheduling buses to ensure a smooth and safe return for students on Sept. 6.

At the same time, he said, he intends to "work hard at restoring confidence and credibility. . . . This has been a difficult time."

He takes over a district in turmoil and a job known to burn out even the best leaders.

For weeks, Ackerman and the School Reform Commission had been locked in a strange standoff, the drama peaking on Thursday when the superintendent publicly challenged her bosses to release her from her job. Part of her undoing was an inability to forge winning alliances with Mayor Nutter in City Hall, state officials in Harrisburg, and community groups throughout Philadelphia.

Nunery promised to work closely with all three.

"We need resources, and we need friends - two key words," he said. "My goal is to do as much outreach to all our respective communities. And I do mean all."

Nunery previously ran his own boutique education consultancy, and was an executive with Edison Schools Inc., the for-profit firm, and a vice president at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a finalist for the superintendent's job that went to Ackerman in 2008.In 2010, she appointed Nunery second-in-command, saying his role would enable her to spend more time in schools and communities.

"He was part and parcel of the decision-making of the last year," said Helen Gym, an advocate for Asian and education causes who has been critical of the School District's management and particularly of its handling of violence at South Philadelphia High. "I would hope he is not the assumed choice for superintendent. There needs to be a serious national search."

In announcing Nunery's appointment, the SRC said it would launch a search for a permanent superintendent. The scope of that search was not immediately clear.

"Of course I want the job," Nunery said in the interview. "The reason I got into education . . . is because I found my meaning, and I found my ministry. This is what I'm dedicated to doing."

City Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, who chairs the Education Committee, said people "should give Leroy Nunery a chance."

Ackerman's departure, she said, was not due to the schools' academic performance, as Ackerman poured money into broken schools that others ignored.

"He was her deputy and he knew her agenda," Blackwell said. "No one ever said anything bad about her agenda."

Said Councilman Jim Kenney, "I like him. I think he's level-headed."

Nunery played roles in two controversies that contributed to the demise of the Ackerman administration, including the award of a $7.5 million, no-bid emergency contract to a small minority contractor.

In March, a district investigation found "no evidence of wrongdoing" by Ackerman or Nunery in awarding the contract. That inquiry began after The Inquirer reported that the superintendent had intervened on behalf of IBS Communications Inc., a minority firm, to install security cameras.

Ackerman pushed aside a Newtown company - Security Data Technologies Inc. - that had begun preliminary work, sources told The Inquirer.

The inquiry found that Ackerman and Nunery had expressed concern that minority firms were not being considered to become prime contractors "and asked whether IBS had the ability to act as the prime contractor" on the camera project.

The inquiry found that the decision to use IBS was made by the district procurement office. However, in an interview with The Inquirer, Nunery said he - not the procurement staff - made the decision. Earlier, district spokeswoman Shana Kemp said John Byars, the chief procurement officer, was responsible.

The second controversy emerged in April when Nunery became enmeshed in a power struggle over control of Martin Luther King High.

He had been present at a closed-door March 16 meeting between State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), SRC Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr., and an official from Mosaica Turnaround Partners of Atlanta - a meeting that prompted the firm to drop its plans to make King a charter school.

The session took place soon after the SRC voted, 3-0, to select Mosaica to run King. The next day, Mosaica backed out.

Nunery, a district spokesperson said at the time, did not speak at the private meeting and had no advance notice of it. The SRC selection of Mosaica followed the recommendation of a committee of King parents, staff, and students. They voted, 8-1, in favor of Mosaica over Foundations, with which Evans has worked closely.

According to the district statement, Nunery believed the meeting was being held to discuss how Mosaica and Foundations could work together to improve King.

On Tuesday, Nunery was asked if those controversies could hurt his chances to be named superintendent.

"I don't know," he answered. "That will be up to the SRC, the mayor, others to determine. I don't know if you can do this job without having some adversity coming your way. I'm also a God-fearing man. I know what I've done, I've done for the right reasons."

Nunery's management style promises to be smoother than that of his predecessor, who could be abrasive, at times heatedly threatening to fire people, several former district employees said.

"He's a gentleman," one said. At the same time, the employee added, he became so closely aligned with Ackerman in the last year that his reputation suffered.

Nunery takes over a district in financial crisis, one forced to inflict painful cuts to offset a $629 million budget shortfall. The workforce is shrunken and demoralized.

Deidre Farmbry, who was acting superintendent in 2001 before Paul Vallas arrived as schools CEO, said the next superintendent must "help educators feel valued again, help the district get back to the position where it recognizes the importance of test scores but it also recognizes the importance of building a culture in which people can go about their work in respectful ways."

Being superintendent of a big-city school district ranks among the most challenging jobs in the United States, experts say, a position that requires broad experience, political savvy, administrative skill, and physical stamina. Typically, superintendents last for three or four years - at six years, they're long-timers. They must manage multiple constituencies, demanding politicians, and oppressive patronage.

Robert Strauss, a Carnegie Mellon University economics professor who worked as a consultant with districts in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, said superintendents enter office carrying a stack of chips that decreases starting on Day One.

"You've got too many constituencies and too few mechanisms to keep everybody happy," he said. "At some point, you run out of chips, and you leave. . . . Nunery may find out he doesn't like it."

Previously, Nunery was founder of PlusUltré L.L.C., a boutique advisory company, according to his district biography. From 2005 to 2007 he was head of school management for Edison Schools Inc. From 1999 to 2005 he was vice president of business services at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Leroy was an instrumental part of my team," said Drexel University President John Fry, who supervised Nunery when both were at Penn. "He expanded access for minorities and women to open and own businesses, which helped boost the local economy."

Unlike Ackerman, Nunery has no background in classroom teaching. But on Thursday he paid homage to district principals at their annual convocation.

"You all know much more than I ever will know," he said, urging the principals to look forward. "I want us to make 2012 a year to proclaim our discipline, our determination, our destiny."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415, or on Twitter @JeffGammage.

Inquirer staff writers Troy Graham and Susan Snyder contributed to this story.


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