City Councilman Bill Green is calling for the City Controller and Auditor General to investigate former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s communications office. On Tuesday, City Paper reported that Ackerman used the School District Communications office as a personal public relations machine dedicated to promoting and defending her personally: coordinating and assisting public rallies in her favor, communicating regularly with private supporters, and spending taxpayer time and money on various kinds of "propaganda," including protest signs and a farewell tribute video.
"It seems like a real problem if, as a District employee, you are essentially inciting people to rally against the District that you work for," says Green, a critic of the District's large communications budget. "It's clearly not appropriate to spend public dollars that way, and I certainly hope that the city controller and auditor general look into it."
State Auditor General Jack Wagner's office declined to comment and City Controller Alan Butkovitz did not return repeated requests for comment.
“It’s certainly questionable,” says Zack Stalberg, president of good government group Committee of Seventy. “I think until an outside party comes in and takes a real close look, it would be premature to say that it is illegal.”
Stalberg says that he thinks Green’s call for an investigation “makes sense,” and that there’s a good chance the Auditor General or Controller will follow through.
“I think there’s a good possibility there will be a response,” he says. “The Auditor General has already expressed concerns about goings on in the Ackerman regime. And I think there’s an appetite from a lot of different directions to find out whether the SRC [School Reform Commission] has been doing its oversight job correctly. My hunch is that there will be interest in following this up.”
Illustration: Evan M. Lopez
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Ackerman, Nutter, Council, the SRC, and the Big Punt: when trying to hide the truth begets trying to hide the truth.
Mayor Nutter and the SRC are now under fire for refusing to disclose the sources of a $490,000 private donation fund collected by various officials, including Mayor Nutter who "made some calls," to help buy out Ackerman's contract. Critics argue that the fund amounts to, essentially, an unregulated campaign donation — the kind of monetary favor that the public has a right to know about.
The mayor makes the case that this was done to reduce the public burden as much as possible and is insisting that these private donors have the right to keep their names secret.
The problem is that it's a little late in the game to make an appeal on behalf of secrecy: because secrecy and a less-than-honest dialogue with the public has been exactly the problem for months.
This week, I wrote about the discrepancy over the past two months between what at least some public officials knew — that schools superintendent Arelene Ackerman was engaged in negotiations to be bought out of her contract — and what was told to the public: that the opposite was the case and that Ackerman enjoyed the support of the School Reform Commission.
But the web of ... non-forthrightness, let's say ... is wider than that: the public theater surrounding the District and Ackerman's leadership has been just that — theater — for nearly a year.
School officials acted like the District's problems were all Harrisburg's fault — and so sat around waiting for the inevitable cuts before taking action. Let's start with the giant $600 million gap in the School District budget this year, which school officials (Ackerman in particular) have characterized all along as being the result of cuts in Harrisburg. In fact, only two-thirds of that gap were the result of direct cuts or the loss of stimulus funds — drastic, yes, but entirelyforeseeable at least since November, when Governor Corbett was elected on a platform to ... cut spending. The other third — about the same size deficit that resulted in Paul Vallas' ousting — belonged to Ackerman and the SRC.
City and school officials deferred on addressing the schools' budget gap for political reasons. The schools' budget gap was announced (albeit at $400 million) waaay back in February. But it wasn't until late May — conveniently after the city's primary elections — that the District unveiled a new spending plan, and that City Council members began asking serious questions. It was during that three-month interim period that Ackerman's contract was extended. By declining to show their cards, the SRC and Ackerman were able to avoid confronting the school's budget problems until after Ackerman's contract was extended; by declining to ask those hard questions until late May, City Council members were able to forestall a potentially ugly public debate that might spill into the public discourse around the primary elections.
As a result, the hearings that were held were largely posturing. When those hearings were held, City Council members and Mayor Nutter acted as if Ackerman would be the one deciding how any extra funding from the city would be spent. But by mid-June, it's now clear that the mayor, at least, already knew she was leaving; While the mayor can claim a legitimate victory in securing an accountability agreement with the school district, and Council can claim a legitimate victory in securing an agreement of spending priorities by District —— still: the conversation didn't begin until Ackerman was widely believed to be on her way out, until Council was preparing to break for the summer, and until other possibilities that might have saved painful cuts were already off the table. The agreements now in place may be rendered moot by the next superinentendent — a fact which some (maybe many) public officials secretly knew. Agreements, after all, can be broken.
And because the District, Council, the Mayor, the SRC, and everybody else had participated in the Big Punt, Ackerman had to be bought out in hurried semi-secrecy. Why were officials so reluctant to take on the District's problems earlier and more aggressively? Mostly because Ackerman was too popular with too many constituents to be worth taking on. And so, rather than examine the budget when there was time to better fix it, rather than question Ackerman's performance (even after drawing the reprimand of the U.S. Department of Justice for the District's handling of patterns of racial violence), rather than risking political capital or stirring up the powers-that-be in Harrisburg who support Ackerman (or at least likewise feared to criticize her in an election year) — rather than doing those things, our elected and appointed officials punted, for months, attempting at the end to solve the problem of Ackerman herself — not that they've admitted there is one — by asking for (or cashing in on) a few favors from their friends, whose identities they now wish to withhold as one more secret.
Even M. Lopez
When news of Arlene Ackerman's imminent departure broke on Monday, Mayor Nutter announced to the press that negotiations for her leaving had been underway since June — which means that much of what the public saw and heard from various public officials was, essentially, a charade.
In this week's CP, I take a look at some of the glaring contradictions between the world presented to the public — in which Ackerman was supposedly staying in charge — and the reality that everyone but the public seemed to know: that she was leaving.
We can chalk some of this up to the necessity of secrecy in negotiations, sure; but it's also a product, perhaps, of the cult of personality that seems to have grown up around Ackerman, who became a political lightening rod that politicians who took issue with her leadership dared not touch.
Even since her announced departure, SRC board members and other politicians (Mayor Nutter, as of today, no longer being one of them) have declined to offer anything but praise — no doubt fueling the idea being put forth strenuously by Ackerman herself that she was forced out for personal reasons and not for performance.
You can read the full piece here.
Meanwhile, a quick roundup of what now appears to have been bogus news.
— Throughout June, City Council and Mayor Nutter spent weeks wrangling out an agreement on how extra funding for the schools, raised in part by an increase in the property tax, would be spent. Not mentioned: that the Mayor apparently knew that Ackerman, who would oversee that spending, would not, in fact, oversee it at all come fall.
— On June 28, 2011, Ackerman told the Inquirer that "As far as I know, the SRC, the mayor, and all those people who are critical to my staying are still on board."
— On Sunday, July 31, Inquirer reporter Kristen Graham wrote to the School District regarding a report by radio personality Steve Collins that Ackerman was out. Replied District spokesperson Shana Kemp: "That information is not true. Sounds like a continuation of rumors that started a little while ago."
— On August 17, Ackerman told the Notebook that an Inquirer report that negotiations for her departure were underway was not true. "We have no negotiations going on right now," Ackerman said.
Three School District communications staffers leave alongside Ackerman. Office known for high salaries, high turnover.
The School District of Philadelphia cleaned its media relations house on Monday when Director Jamilah Fraser and two staffers stepped down alongside Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. Fernando Gallard, a long-time (and thanks to calls from me and other reporters, long-suffering) staffer, is now acting Communications Director.
This is only the most recent of many public relations shakeups at the District. The School District announced the hiring of Fraser and two staffers in November 2010, eleven months after Arlene Ackerman fired two long-time communications staffers. Fraser was Ackerman’s fourth communications chief since 2008.
The Notebook reported that Fraser, like her predecessors, made $170,000. High salaries for central office executives in general, and communications office employees in particular, have sparked controversy throughout Ackerman’s tenure, and staffers have even been accused of coordinating outside protests to support her.
And then there was the $986,000 spent on outside PR in addition to the $2.86 million the District pays for in-house communications.
Ackerman to quit: Too bad school officials couldn't have started looking for a replacement for Ackerman waaaaay back in June, when everyone was sure she'd leave anyway.
The Inquirer is reporting today that Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is leaving the District:
The money to buy out Ackerman's contract, which runs through 2014, will come from both the district and private sources, as The Inquirer previously reported. Sources say the district will pay about $500,000 and some amount - exactly how much isn't yet clear - will come from the private sources.
Leroy Nunery, Ackerman's deputy, will be the interim superintendent. He was a finalist for the top job when Ackerman was hired. A national search will be conducted for a permanent replacement.
While we readily acknowledge that the city's daily newspapers have generally reported the ... resolution not to swear in print kicking in ... out of Ackerman, I will take this moment to humbly remind readers that waaaay back in mid-June, when nobody in the media was actually saying it, City Paper took it upon itself to let readers know (just in case they wanted to) that virtually no one in the know thought Ackerman was going to be here when school started:
Let me make this very clear: There is no unofficial confirmation — and certainly no official confirmation — of what is, essentially, nothing more than speculation. However, it's speculation shared by virtually — heck, maybe literally — every source CP's spoken with for weeks now. That, we think, makes it news.
When the schools open back up this September, say these sources, they expect that Superintendent Arelene Ackerman will be long gone.
Well, we got the "gone" part right, but not the "long gone" part: with schools opening in a week, school officials will have to scramble to conduct a national search for a replacement, who will inevitably begin his or her tenure in the middle of a school year.
Update: Inquirer now reporting that Ackerman departure will be announced today.
Last Wednesday, black activists and legislators demonstrated their support for embattled Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. But two leading black legislators weren’t there: West Philly Rep. James Roebuck, minority chair of the House Education Committee, and State Sen. Vincent Hughes, minority Appropriations chair.
In the wake of Ackerman’s bungled handling of school budget cuts, persistent critics (citing the response to violence against Asian students at South Philly High, cheating on standardized tests, an imperious administrative style...) have ultimately succeeded in building an air of finality around the superintendent’s departure. Meanwhile, some members of the black community have grown increasingly protective of the superintendent, and Ackerman herself has accused critics like Northeast Philly Rep. Michael McGeehan of being motivated by racism and sexism.
State Sens. Anthony Hardy Williams, Shirley Kitchen and Leanna Washington and Reps. Tony Payton, Curtis Thomas, and Ronald Waters all showed up to defend Ackerman, according to The Inquirer (a copy of which Ackerman supporter Sacaree Rhodes burned outside District headquarters, calling the paper’s coverage racist).
So where was Rep. Roebuck?
“I wasn’t in Philadelphia,” Roebuck tells City Paper. “We had an Education Committee hearing on vouchers and charters.”
Fair enough. But would he have been there, had he been in town? He said that he normally attends Black Caucus meetings. But, I asked, what about an event demonstrating support for Ackerman? He wouldn’t say.
“I have some concerns about School District policy and that’s where I am on that,” says Roebuck, a critic of the school vouchers bill that Sen. Williams strongly supports. “I’m hoping we can get beyond this discourse that’s not helpful to the students of the city.”
That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of Ackerman, and I suspect that Roebuck wouldn’t have been at that event under any circumstance.
As for Senator Hughes, he declined to comment.
In June, Hughes did play a major role in lobbying Council to raise funds to help fill the huge School District budget shortfall, in part to convince a Philadelphia-hostile and Republican-dominated legislature to chip in. Hughes and Nutter were “stunned to learn” that Ackerman had, without informing anyone, found federal funds to save full-day kindergarten--undermining Nutter and Hughes’ primary talking points.
Hughes had previously expressed his support for Ackerman at an April event, months before the budget bungling reportedly annoyed him.
So did State Rep. and Democratic nominee for Sheriff Jewell Williams--who also didn’t show up yesterday.
"We support Dr. Ackerman and all of the work that she does," Williams told The Inquirer at the time. "We're with her 100 percent...If it is a decision that he is making based on color, then he [Rep. McGeehan] has a problem with us - the Philadelphia delegation of legislators.”
(Rep. Cherelle Parker, a former aid to Councilwoman Marian Tasco, wasn’t there to back Ackerman either. But Parker hasn’t been in the news at all since her May arrest for driving while intoxicated.)
Follow Daniel Denvir on Twitter @DanielDenvir
You'll want to do some clicking and follow links to the reporters prepared to do this story justice, but here's the quick rundown:
The School Reform Commission meeting this morning appears to have been total mayhem. A packed room included staunch supporters of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman — a few of whom, according to live tweets by Inquirer reporter Kristen Graham, described the Sup. as "sent from God," and Philly's "Rosa Parks," — as well as critics.
Among the bombshells dropped by SRC members: the gutting of "Promise Academies," Ackerman's legacy project, which aim to turn around the District's worst-performing schools.
At the news, some audience members exploded at the SRC.
SRC members, in turn, did not voice support for Ackerman.
Speculation that Ackerman will not preside over the schools when they re-open in September has been rampant, though Ackerman has consistently denied that she intends to leave, and has a contract through 2014.
Is it possible that the curtailing of her most-touted program will change her tone? We'll see.
Advocates will testify against cuts to services for immigrant students and their families at Friday’s School Reform Commission (SRC) meeting.
40 of the District’s 98 Bilingual Counseling Assistants (BCAs) are being laid off, according to Len Rieser, Executive Director of the Education Law Center. In addition, School District spokesperson Elizabeth Childs tells City Paper that the number of ESOL/Bilingual Teachers is being reduced from 337 to 301. The full extent of the cuts affecting immigrant students and families, however, is not yet clear.
The School District of Philadelphia has a $629 million budget gap, thanks in part to a $270 million budget cut from the state (down from $292 million, thanks to friendly legislators). Republican Governor Tom Corbett's harshly austere budget cuts $900 million in education funding state-wide.
The BCA positions were created thanks to a court order resulting from a lawsuit filed in 1985 called YS v School District of Philadelphia, which forced the District to provide adequate translation services to students and families. Cuts to translations and intepretaton services risk breaking the law.
Rieser says that the District will be hiring 30 “Bilingual School Improvement Liaisons,” though neither he nor any other advocates contacted know what that means.
“The question,” says Rieser, “is now that this year’s set of staffing arrangements is getting drastically changed: will they be able to provide the services that families need and that are required? I don’t think they even know the answer to that right now.”
Two people in the Multilingual Family Support Office, including Director Ludy Soderman, will be laid off. Parents and activists are circulating a petition calling for her to be reinstated.
“It’s a shortsighted move on the School District’s part,” says Helen Gym, long-time activist and a founder of Parents United. “The District has been completely opaque about what it was planning to do.”
Zac Steele of the Latino advocacy group Juntos notes that non-English speakers are at a high risk of dropping out. And they are the future of this city.
“Philadelphia only gained population because of immigration,” says Steele. “We’re cutting the services for a large segment of the population.”
The SRC meets Friday June 30, 11 AM at the School District’s 400 N. Broad headquarters.
From the Dept. of Actually Interesting Press Releases ... the Public Interest Law Center announced today that it will file a lawsuit against the Philadelphia School District in federal court.
The press release reads, "The lawsuit, naming the School Reform Commission and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, alleges that the District is violating the rights of children with autism through the continued implementation of a District-wide transfer policy that moves children who experience autism from school to school when children without disabilities are not required to change schools."
We'll post more as it comes.
News editor Isaiah Thompson is live-tweeting today's City Council hearings on the proposed sweetened beverages tax, school funding and paid sick leave. Follow him @isaiah_thompson or look for the tag #phillycouncil.
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