Arlene C. Ackerman seeks an unemployment check, outraging many

Arlene Ackerman left with a nearly $1 million payout.
Arlene Ackerman left with a nearly $1 million payout.
Posted: November 30, 2011

Struggling with a cash-flow problem and preparing to eliminate more programs and lay off more employees, the Philadelphia School District now faces another expense - Arlene C. Ackerman's unemployment check.

The controversial former superintendent left the district with a payout of nearly $1 million earlier this year, including a lump-sum payment of $905,000, plus $83,000 in unused vacation and personal days.

But the district was notified last week that Ackerman had filed for unemployment benefits on top of the payout, a spokesman said.

The School Reform Commission, which signed off on the payout, promised in Ackerman's separation agreement not to block her from filing for unemployment, although on Tuesday a state legislator pledged to use his powers to prevent her from getting paid.

Based on her $348,000 annual salary, Ackerman would be eligible for the maximum $573 weekly benefit, minus the amount of her public pensions. The district, which is self-insured for unemployment compensation, will have to foot 100 percent of any payments to Ackerman, said district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

Dean Weitzman, Ackerman's attorney, said she was merely taking a benefit she had contributed to. "She was not fired. She was not let go. She is indeed unemployed," Weitzman said. "She is taking that which she's entitled to take."

The prospect of the struggling district sending more money Ackerman's way outraged many.

Mayor Nutter denounced Ackerman's filing in a statement. "Given the financial crisis facing the Philadelphia School District and the nearly one million dollar settlement agreement that the former superintendent received, it's astounding to me that she's coming back to the district seeking unemployment compensation," Nutter said.

State Rep. Michael McGeehan accused Ackerman of "unconscionable arrogance" and said he would ask the state Department of Labor and Industry "to take the extraordinary step to intercede directly and deny her application," on the assertion that she voluntarily left her job.

"She wasn't fired; she agreed to leave her post after being offered the buyout package from the mayor," McGeehan, a longtime Ackerman critic, said in a news release. "Unemployment compensation is there as a safety net for working people who have lost their job and need assistance affording basic needs like food and shelter for themselves and their families."

After a bitter, public battle over district leadership and months of vowing to stay and fight for Philadelphia's children, Ackerman finally left the district in August. She later said it was because she refused to play politics.

But Ackerman also had accumulated many critics who were frustrated with her leadership style and her management of the district.

The district recently announced that it has a $39 million budget gap on top of the $629 million shortfall it announced earlier this year. Officials will begin making $14 million in cuts this week; more program eliminations and layoffs are coming.

Proposals on the table include further slashing individual schools' budgets by a total of $10 million, cutting professional development, instrumental music, athletics, English-language-learner instruction, psychologists, educational technology, and bilingual counseling assistants.

The district has already shed more than 3,000 employees and cut programs in June.

News of Ackerman's unemployment filing infuriated George Ricchezza, head of the union representing district bus drivers, mechanics, and cleaners. More than 1,300 of his members were recently sent pink slips.

"Here's a woman who is a millionaire and is applying for unemployment," he said. "I can't believe that someone could get a severance package of $1 million and then file for unemployment when so many people are out of work."

Ricchezza said he had fielded several phone calls from members angry at the Ackerman news. "I was speechless," he said. "It's like rubbing mud in the eyes of every public school worker who's absorbing cuts, taking salary decreases, giving back benefits, doing anything they can to save jobs."

Ackerman is in New Mexico with her family and did not return calls for comment. A local supporter who reached out to Ackerman on The Inquirer's behalf said Ackerman did not wish to discuss the matter.

City Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, chairwoman of Council's Education Committee and an Ackerman supporter, suggested that the former superintendent's unemployment claim was more about principle than greed, with Ackerman intent on making the district live up to its obligations after pushing her out.

"If they agreed to it, they agreed to it; there should be no debate," Blackwell said in an interview. She said she believed most parents of public school children "still hold her as a heroine and champion of public education, and someone who was forced out."


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

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