Karen Heller: Again, politics trumps education in Phila.

CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Ousted school chief Arlene Ackerman said she wasn't a politician, but she needed to be.

Posted: August 28, 2011

In advance of the natural disaster called Irene, Arlene Ackerman battered our shores and stormed the ramparts while exhibiting no signs of dissipating after the weekend. She's not blowing out of town.

The newly ousted school superintendent was not salved by her almost $1 million payout. Some civil servants joked that Tuesday's earthquake was caused by Ackerman's dropping her wallet.

She is Arlene, hear her roar! In the aftermath of her departure, she left a wide swath of devastation, sliming almost everyone in her path. No one delivers a better performance in the role of imperious victim.

She angrily named names. When Ackerman sided with a high school group's choice of an Atlanta charter operator over a local group with ties to State Rep. Dwight Evans, she told Education Week, "I was told I was making a 'career decision.' "

During the contentious budget talks, Ackerman said, Mayor Nutter asked her to put all-day kindergarten on the cutting board, a Perils of Pauline gambit to wring money out of city and state legislators.

Then - eureka! - Ackerman miraculously found the money an hour before informing Nutter, who went ballistic.

"My misstep was to cross the mayor," she said, "and my mistake was to ever have agreed to it."

Know what? Ackerman's right on both counts, and I believe her.

Crossing Evans and Silent Bob, School Reform Commission Chair Robert L. Archie Jr., was most likely a "career decision," the beginning of the slow, tortuous end.

Nutter's strategy was cynical - there were plenty of other cuts on the chopping block with a $629 million deficit - and it misfired spectacularly, especially as it relied on a superintendent whose mantra is, "I am not a politician."

But Ackerman was also wrong. If you're going to successfully lead a school district, especially one with 155,000 students and a $3 billion budget, you'd better be a skillful politician, especially in a place where backroom deals are as ingrained as Philadelphia.

It's arrogant to think otherwise or to take a $350,000-a-year job for which, if politics is required, you're only half-qualified.

Ackerman has a decided gift for vengeance, unleashing the fury of a superintendent scorned. She settled scores in interviews, vowing to stay in town and keep fighting, while attempting to undermine the district that, less than a week ago, she led.

She encouraged parents to "vote with their feet" and take their children out of the city public schools, following her as the martyr of 440 N. Broad. She suggested that vouchers, which critics view as the financial undoing of public education, "may be an alternative."

Immediately, video hagiographies were posted on an Ackerman YouTube channel, scored with inspirational music, but then her entire exit has been orchestrated - literally.

The Nutter administration and School District struck back. Ackerman had stopped speaking to chief financial officer Michael Masch, anonymous sources said, and wasn't meeting with her cabinet. There were dueling budgets. The real problem wasn't politics, sources said, but that Ackerman couldn't manage.

Anonymous sources abounded, in keeping with the $405,000 worth of anonymous gifts contributed to Ackerman's $905,000 settlement, which angered almost everyone.

The reliance on anonymity, for funding and settling scores, makes City Hall and district officials look very small. If you're getting in the ring for a heavyweight bout, declare yourself.

Speaking of weenies, School Reform Commission members sat silent at last week's raucous meeting, refusing to answer questions or offer explanations, the literal manifestation of their cumulative wisdom and power.

Archie and Evans' secret meeting with the Atlanta charter operator, which immediately backed out, is being investigated by the mayor's integrity officer; the report is due in a few weeks.

A trio of state senators will call Tuesday for the decade-old SRC's abolition and a return to an elected school board. Auditor General Jack Wagner is investigating the anonymous gifts that made the Ackerman buyout possible.

Oh, and acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery II, who certainly knew the boss' days were numbered, decided this would be the ideal time to take a week's vacation. He's scheduled to return Thursday, two working days before school opens Sept. 6.

If this isn't a Philadelphia moment, I don't know what is.

Politics has clouded everything. It's not clear that anyone is behaving well, or in the best interests of the district.

Or the children.


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller

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