Evan M. Lopez
[ not going, not going, gone ]
"Please, Dr. Ackerman, don't go."
Such was the exchange between parent and schools activist Emmanuel Bussie and Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman during a special meeting of the School Reform Commission at the end of June. It was just one of a slew of emotionally charged public spectacles involving the now-leaving Ackerman over the past year, and especially over the summer.
And like many of those spectacles, it seems to have been at least partly a façade: Bussie's plea was, no doubt, heartfelt, but Ackerman's response, it now looks, was less than forthcoming.
In fact, as Mayor Michael Nutter revealed in a press conference Monday, following Ackerman's announced departure, negotiations over what would wind up being a nearly $1 million buyout of Ackerman's contract had been under way "since June."
In saying "not going," Ackerman now appears to have left out the "quite yet."
For those in the know, the news of Ackerman's departure was no earth-shattering revelation. For those in the know, it was all but given that when schools reopened (about a week from now), Ackerman would not be at the helm. But it was all off the record — which meant that in news reports and public statements, no such understanding existed.
And so we've lived in two worlds for the past few months: a (real) world, in which Ackerman and various public officials have been meeting behind closed doors to negotiate the price of her departure; and a (fake) world in which none of that was true — in which Ackerman enjoyed the support of School District officials and in which her repeated assurances to parent supporters that she, along with her promises of bettering the worst-performing and poorest schools, weren't going anywhere meant something.
It was the second, fake world that played out on the public stage — but also played with the public's emotions. Even as she prepared to leave, the rhetoric around Ackerman became more polarized than ever. In private, a negotiation was being hammered out. In public, some kind of battle was supposedly raging: Ackerman was under fire, and needed support.
The idea of Ackerman as a martyr had begun to gain steam first when she got criticized for her handling of violence against Asian students at South Philly High (reminder: She blamed the violence on an Asian student who was himself attacked and then suspended, then refused to meet with protesting students, then commissioned an expensive report that absolved school and District officials), and then increased amid scandal over her interference in a no-bid contract, as well as her presenting the School Reform Commission (SRC) with a $600 million-odd budget shortfall. This month, when the SRC announced further cuts to the already-gutted school budget, Ackerman supporters heckled commission members from their seats. One, according to the Inquirer, suggested in her testimony that Ackerman had been "sent by God." Emmanuel Bussie (the same person whom Ackerman had assured she would not leave in June) compared her defiance to that of Rosa Parks. Ackerman hardly shied away from such praise, addressing the attendees of the Superintendent's 2011 Leadership Conference just last week by quoting a Maya Angelou poem: "You may shoot me with your words; You may cut me with your eyes; You may kill me with your hatefulness; But still, like air, I" — here she pointed a finger to herself — "I rise."
That was four days before the announcement that she had agreed to accept $500,000 in public funds and $405,000 in private donations to walk away. Even after the Inquirer reported, a few days prior, that negotiations were under way, Ackerman stated: "We have no negotiations going on right now."
Nor did other officials let the public in on the secret — not during daylong hearings on the District's $3 billion budget; not while City Council contemplated raising taxes; not while the mayor presented as a great victory in transparency a memorandum of understanding of how money would be spent with the district.
That budget, of course, will now be overseen by someone else.
True, the silence was due in part to the necessity of bargaining: "This to me was not anything unusual," says Jerry Jordan of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. "My experience has always been that when there are negotiations taking place, they're done quietly."
But it's also true that Ackerman is a political lightening rod — and likely it's no coincidence that school budget hearings were delayed until after the primary elections were over. What's more, now that the secret's out, the plan is revealed and the curtain drawn back, no public official has dared give an explanation.
SRC officials continue to praise Ackerman's accomplishments; some Ackerman supporters — state Sen. Anthony Williams, rumored to be considering a run for mayor, for one — have blamed the SRC for "marginalizing" Ackerman and characterize her departure as a failure by anyone but her. Nutter, even as he announced his efforts to raise money for her buyout, has declined to give explanation as to why he felt it the right thing to do. There's no shortage of possible answers: Ackerman's allowing an unheard-of budget gap; her failure to work positively with other public officials; the way she handled racial violence so poorly as to bring about the intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division. But none have been offered — all of which leaves a logical question in the mind of supporters: "She's a winner," Bussie declared to the Inquirer on Monday, "so why is she going?"
It's a question that's gone unanswered, but to which an answer may be necessary if Philadelphia is going to break the cycle of emotional mayhem over the superintendent position that it's been in for years. Former Superintendent Paul Vallas was similarly divisive and elicited similar platitudes and scorn.
"One of the biggest failures of the SRC and the mayor is they failed to act like public officials," and explain their dissatisfaction, says schools activist and Parents United for Public Education founder Helen Gym. "And now you have this messiness. It poisons the waters. And it sets a low bar for the next superintendent. If we don't know why [Ackerman] left, is there even a bar for the next superintendent?"
"No more messiahs," is how Gym summarizes her recipe for change. "There's this notion that changing schools requires a superintendent who can wave a magic wand ... who is untouchable. It's a ridiculous concept."
She's not the only one saying that. Sylvia P. Simms, a member of the group Parent Power — an organization that often appeared in the media as the staunchest of Ackerman allies — feels much the same way.
"I'm always called a supporter [of Ackerman]," Simms told City Paper. "The way I saw it, she was the superintendent. As a parent, you try to build relationships," adding of her protests on behalf of Ackerman, "I may have done it differently now; I'm more aware of the power tricks."
"I don't think Dr. Ackerman came to blow up the schools, or Paul Vallas [did]," Simms says. "I think they came to make the schools better. [But] to be honest, I think we get these 'big people,' who are so removed from where they are. ... We need somebody who's down on the ground and really wants to make change."