How to avoid malaise after the tumult

Interim Superintendent Leroy Nunery II. The district deserves an open national search for a quality leader, but no timeline has been set.
Interim Superintendent Leroy Nunery II. The district deserves an open national search for a quality leader, but no timeline has been set. (BONNIE WELLER / File Photograph)

In search for great leadership, we must act on lessons learned.

Posted: August 28, 2011

Helen Gym

is a Philadelphia public school parent and a cofounder of Parents United for Public Education

I can't count the number of times I've heard conversations about the next leadership of our schools start with: "Who would ever want to come here?"

The question reflects growing public disgust for city and state officials who let negotiations over former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman's tenure drag out in such a bitter, toxic fashion. A colleague whose research focuses on urban school districts characterizes this type of fatalism and loss of confidence as "drift." It's what happens when our schools lack a clear course of action.

"It's my greatest fear," she said recently as we reflected on nearly two decades of school reform.

Drift was how she characterized the malaise that followed Superintendent David Hornbeck's departure from Philadelphia in 2000. City leaders failed to set a decisive course. The district was left in financial shambles, and staff morale hit a (then) all-time low. Relationships between the district and the city and state became irreparably fractured, leaving the schools vulnerable to a state takeover.

Drift still plagues our schools. Despite massive turmoil, political leaders act like they're stuck in neutral.

The summer brought interminable backdoor negotiations to end Ackerman's tenure. While School Reform Commission members mouthed feeble support, Mayor Nutter declined to comment, and Gov. Corbett stayed AWOL. The public has been sidelined, not even allowed to know whose "charitable" donations contributed to an outrageous million-dollar buyout from a cash-starved district.

Interim Superintendent Leroy Nunery II should not be the default choice to be the permanent school chief. Nunery is closely tied to many of Ackerman's failed decisions, and he has not been publicly vetted. Philadelphians deserve an open, genuine, national search for a quality superintendent, but the mayor and governor have yet to set a clear timeline for that process.

Philadelphia's is a complex school system ripe with possibility and full of passionate, engaged communities deeply invested in improving our schools. Despite its struggles, it deserves great leadership. In the meantime, we must act on lessons learned from the Ackerman years:

Fire the SRC: Any entity that hires a new superintendent needs credibility, but the current commissioners don't have the public's trust. The mayor and governor should ask the commissioners to step down, and they should appoint replacements who can rebuild faith in the public mission of our schools. Over the long term, a larger public discussion needs to happen about abolishing the SRC and about the pros and cons of an elected school board.

Start a quality search process: The search that resulted in Ackerman's hiring was strong on civic engagement but weak on head-hunting. It included a series of community discussions with the SRC and a large community interviewing board, on which I served. But the result was Ackerman and two other candidates, Nunery and Kent McGuire, a former Temple University dean of education. Ackerman had support, but there was concern even then that the search did not offer enough contenders to determine the best fit for the city.

No more messiahs, no more reform: There's a popular notion that somewhere out there is a mythological superintendent who, if we pay enough money and stay out of the way, will fix our schools. These district leaders are an "army of one," according to Rethinking Schools writer Leigh Dingerson, and they push dramatic reform agendas that too often disregard existing efforts. Philadelphia schools don't need more drama; this system needs stabilization after a decade of massive charter expansion and turnaround. The next superintendent must build and effectively manage a team-oriented approach that assesses what's working and that oversees operations, including the difficult task of closing schools.

Accountability and oversight: Ackerman refused to answer questions about finances and governance, and the SRC failed to rein in a reckless administration. We need other bodies to oversee the district, like the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, which should approve the district's five-year financial plans. And why is it up to the Committee of Seventy to report the district's ethical lapses?

Politics is not the enemy: A large urban school district needs a savvy leader who understands power relationships and who builds bridges to benefit the city's schoolchildren. Ackerman sent a message that education was her sole purview - alienating many political, business, civic, and community interests. A school leader is an ambassador for public education, building a broad and inclusive sense of collective will.

Relationships determine the success of a city's schools. Education reform relies less on numbers, data, and, yes, even money, than it does on the delicate fabric of community and social trust. Unfortunately, in Philadelphia, our community and trust have been taken for granted for too long.

Our School District is in crisis. A voice of moral leadership is desperately needed. Nutter and Corbett have to help fill that void. It's time to get to work. It's time to end the drift.

E-mail Helen Gym at

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