I apologize, but I feel compelled to postpone my Teach for America follow-up blog until tomorrow after hearing some late-breaking news today that I felt was so despicable that it needed to be addressed. It is the story of a former Philadelphia superintendent, Arlene C. Ackerman.
Ackerman is a Harvard graduate who, before being hired as Philadelphia’s school superintendent, had worked in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. schools. In her three year tenure in Philadelphia, Ackerman came under fire in spite of the fact that test scores in the district improved under her guidance and the graduation rate increased, improvements she was hired to bring about.
But this past summer, allegations surfaced suggesting that Ackerman both encouraged and took part in teacher-assisted cheating on the district’s standardized tests. If these allegations are true, she is guilty of knowingly and purposefully deceiving the community into thinking that progress was being made when that progress was really being fabricated and coerced.
Several unnamed teachers have admitted to cheating on these tests due to bullying and pressure from their administrators. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) But the official investigation into Philadelphia’s 2009 testing procedures has not been conclusive. This scandal naturally reflected poorly on Ackerman.
Apparently, she also bumped heads with Mayor Michael Nutter when he reneged on a no-new-taxes pledge in order to raise funds for a jeopardized kindergarten program, after she went ahead and found the needed funds without reporting to him immediately. And she also was reported to have issues with other community members and the district’s teachers union.
On August 19, an embattled Ackerman told hundreds of principals from her district who were gathered for a professional-development meeting, “Sentence me. I dare you. Or set me free. But I admit to you today that I am guilty. Guilty of just being me. Once I understood that being guilty of standing up for children was a good thing, I stood just a little taller, held my head a little higher, and I felt liberated, liberated knowing that whatever happens to me, I have touched the future of thousands of young people in Philadelphia, and for the better.”
Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? But at the same time, rumors were circulating that high-ranking business leaders in the community were receiving calls asking them to donate money to a charitable education organization that would provide money to help buy out Ackerman’s contract. These donors backed out after critics criticized the deal’s lack of transparency.
On August 22, it was announced by Mayor Michael Nutter that Arlene Ackerman would be leaving the district. But she would be leaving it with a sizable severance check. Ackerman’s contract entitled her to more than $1.5 million, but in an effort to limit how much public money was spent to buy her out, she would walk away with $905,000, at the taxpayers’ expense!
Now, that is a ridiculous amount of money, I think we would all agree. So this woman, who was making a handsome $365,000 a year, walked away from a job which she apparently at the very least mismanaged, and at the very worst placed in the middle of a cheating scandal, with almost $1 million in lovely parting gifts? Does this not sound crazy to you?
Is it not ludicrous that the taxpayers of Philadelphia would still be helping to buy out her contract? To make matters worse, the district had to cut $629 million from its 2011-2012 budget, and has $35 million more to cut.
But wait! Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, it was reported today that Ackerman has applied for unemployment!
No way, you say? Oh, yes! A spokesman from the district confirmed yesterday that she applied for jobless benefits and is eligible for $573 a week, the state maximum, based on her former salary.
Ackerman’s attorney claims that she qualifies for unemployment because she is now jobless and she wasn’t fired for cause. And apparently, as part of her separation agreement, the School Reform Commission agreed not to contest any future unemployment claims she might decide to file.
But many aren’t taking the news very well. One of these is Michael Lodise who is the head of the school police officer’s union. Lodise explained that he fought for months to get unemployment compensation for 120 school police officers who were laid off from their jobs in June. He eventually succeeded in getting them compensation.
Of Ackerman’s bid for unemployment, Lodise said, “These people were really hurting, really needed it. And here’s a woman with almost a million dollars, and she wants unemployment besides. I just don’t understand it.”
I don’t understand it either. Here is a woman who claims to have been standing up for children, yet she has helped rob that district of much-needed money to provide adequate services for the children whose lives she claims to have touched. Oh, she touched them all right; while the district was entrenched in a cheating scandal and she robbed them blind! And now, she plans to pillage the unemployment agency.
It is up to the state employment compensation board to decide whether it will uphold Ackerman’s claim. Please, do the right thing and tell this woman that enough is enough!