Outrage over Ackerman's buyout erupts at SRC meeting

Under the eye of a security official , Ada L. Banks-Scott speaks at the SRC meeting. Many booed when the commission members entered the auditorium.
Under the eye of a security official , Ada L. Banks-Scott speaks at the SRC meeting. Many booed when the commission members entered the auditorium. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 25, 2011

Outrage at the Philadelphia School Reform Commission bubbled over Wednesday when it unanimously approved a buyout approaching $1 million for former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman.

The commission did not offer comment, answer questions, or discuss the controversial package at the raucous racially and politically charged meeting.

Ackerman's payment includes $905,000 - from $500,000 in district funds and $405,000 in private, anonymous donations funneled through a nonprofit with ties to the Philadelphia School District.

She will also get health and life insurance through June 2013 and an additional check for the value of her unused sick and vacation time, it was disclosed Wednesday. A district spokesman said he did not know the dollar value of the insurance or the sick and vacation time.

Some at the meeting said Ackerman's fate was in part the result of racial tensions.

Ackerman was "lynched" by politicians and the SRC "carried the rope," said Leon Williams, a lawyer and activist.

Her crime, Williams said, "was, she did not kiss the rumps of the politicians. And that she gave too large a contract to a black vendor," referring to a controversial $7.5 million contract for surveillance cameras.

Many of the more than 100 people in attendance at Wednesday's meeting booed when the commission members entered the auditorium, setting the tone for a wild and often uncomfortable meeting.

One speaker led a spontaneous version of the song "The Greatest Love of All." Another suggested that Tuesday's earthquake happened because the SRC had bought out Ackerman.

"Shame, shame, shame," some cried. "All of them must go!" people shouted when the vote to approve Ackerman's deal was over.

When one speaker said the next superintendent should not earn as much as Ackerman, whose base salary was $348,140, the audience erupted in shouts and catcalls.

In brief opening remarks, SRC Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. acknowledged recent "changes and challenges."

"Our main focus is the children," Archie said, "and going forward, we hope to pull the other distractions aside and focus on what is best for them and their future."

Ackerman, who has described herself as an educator done in by politics, did not attend the meeting, but many of her supporters were there.

State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas (D., Phila.) pointed out that earlier this year, the SRC extended Ackerman's contract through 2014, seemingly endorsing her performance.

"I can in no way support this proposed agreement," said Thomas, who praised Ackerman and her "Imagine 2014" strategic plan.

Activist Judith Robinson, who said Ackerman was treated with disrespect, took aim at the commission.

"Shame on this SRC," she said. "You've been derelict in your duties. Too much wheeling and dealing."

Speakers also demanded that the SRC release the names of those who made contributions used to buy out Ackerman. Those donations were funneled through the Philadelphia Children's First Fund, a nonprofit set up by the district and whose board once included Ackerman. Archie and acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery II are members.

"We want to know their intent and their motive," shouted Emmanuel Bussie, a frequent SRC critic. "Corporations don't do favors for nothing."

The government watchdog group Committee of Seventy has also formally asked the SRC to release the names of the donors.

"The inescapable message sent by this lack of transparency is that there is something to hide," committee president Zack Stalberg wrote in a letter to the SRC. "Moreover, keeping secret the names of donors prevents the public from knowing whether, or how, their favors might be returned."

Though most speakers supported Ackerman, even some who thought it was time for her to move on took the SRC to task.

"We need to regain control of our own school system," former district teacher Lisa Haver said. "I believe that this may not be the best model for our city. I believe a local Philadelphia school board would be better."

The SRC was created by a 2001 state-takeover law. Three members are appointed by the governor and two by the mayor.

Dressed all in white and carrying a large wooden staff, a speaker who identified herself as Mama Gail said, "It's no coincidence that the earth started to move the other day in New York and Philadelphia."

The Ackerman supporter warned of more trouble to come.

"Unless this is done right," she said, "there are going to be a whole lot more storms."

Vernard Johnson, an activist from Southwest Philadelphia, said, "What I liked about Dr. Ackerman is she stood up for black kids." Ackerman wasn't putting down other children, but was advocating for those most at risk, he said.

Williams also complained about Nunery's promotion.

"It just doesn't look right when somebody is lynched and her deputy winds up with her job," Williams said.

Earlier, Nunery introduced himself to the audience and said he was dedicated to the "ideals of education and advancement."

"With our 10th year of straight gains in achievement as a goal, we want to extend the legacy of Dr. Ackerman, but also keep intact the core mission of the School District of Philadelphia."

Nunery, who has worked at the University of Pennsylvania and the for-profit Edison Learning Inc., lacks a superintendent's certificate, but the SRC has the power to appoint him without one, and it did so Wednesday. He is paid $230,000.

The SRC declined to take questions after the meeting as school police officers physically barred reporters from approaching commission members.

State Auditor General Jack Wagner, who was prompted in part by the Ackerman deal to institute a new policy of auditing all superintendent contract buyouts, spoke out against the commission.

"I am appalled that the SRC is not listening to the public and their concerns," Wagner said. "The concerns are very basic: excessive salaries and confidential buyouts."

Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com,

or @newskag on Twitter. Read her blog, "Philly School Files,"

at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

Inquirer staff writer Amy Worden contributed to this article.

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