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Upheaval at the SRC: Ramirez to step down

By Helen Gym on Aug 19, 2009 11:30 AM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Commissioner Heidi Ramirez at a recent meeting of the SRC - did she ask too many questions?

Sources inside and outside the District have informed me that School Reform Commissioner Heidi Ramirez will announce her intention to resign from the SRC. The announcement is expected this afternoon when the SRC convenes.

The announcement follows months of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s public critiques and complaints about Ramirez’s inquiries into areas such as the budget and contracts.  It also follows Gov. Rendell’s decision in the spring to put Ramirez’s re-nomination in limbo and open angling by Harrisburg legislators to get Republican representation on the SRC. One can only guess that Ramirez, whom Governor Rendell once praised as “the most qualified” member of the SRC for her education background, got little backing from state or city officials.

And that bodes poorly for future oversight of the District.

NOTE: Look for news updates here throughout the day. The Inquirer has additional reporting. And in Spanish in Al Día by reporter Milena Velis.

3:10 p.m. District spokesperson confirms Commissioner Ramirez will resign soon during today's SRC meeting.

6 p.m. Fighting back tears, Heidi Ramirez resigns, saying her educational vision is now "inconsistent" with that of the District. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman notably waited to be the last person to stand in acknowledging Commissioner Ramirez and rolled her eyes before standing. Read her resignation letter and  the text of her public statement.

*                          *                       *                         *                           *                      

Since the departure of former chair Sandra Dungee Glenn, Commissioner Ramirez has been the most publicly engaged member of the SRC, and despite criticisms from the superintendent, has earned public appreciation for her respectful manner toward speakers at SRC meetings, her frequent involvement in community events and affirmation of community participation, as well as her efforts to make the SRC a more engaged and publicly accountable body.

More important, though, was her interest in taking her public role seriously. She tackled critical and often overlooked issues such as teacher efficacy and retention, emphasized the importance of boosting basic school budgets, and consistently inquired about data backing up decisions. On a board where her colleagues often sat through entire meetings without raising a single public question on millions of dollars of contracts, heart-wrenching public testimony, or announcements of major changes in policy, Commissioner Ramirez stood out as someone who wanted the District to publicly explain the rationale for large contracts, major policy shifts, and budget alignment.  

Her inquiries were often met with open hostility from Superintendent Ackerman, whose criticisms became noteworthy enough for their own coverage in the press.  The superintendent balked at Commissioner Ramirez' inquiries and concerns on issues as varied as data background on Teach for America, contracts for the as yet undefined Renaissance Schools plan, budgeting for the Superintendent’s Imagine 2014 strategic plan, and the wholesale renewal of all the Education Management Organizations (EMOs).

Meanwhile, wavering support from city and state leadership has been notable, though not widely reported. The Notebook reported in June that Gov. Rendell, who had announced the re-nomination of Ramirez to a full term in March, had, in fact, withdrawn Dr. Ramirez’ re-nomination. The Notebook also reported on the legislative politicking behind SRC appointments, particularly regarding Republican representation. It certainly doesn’t appear that Commissioner Ramirez got any support from the city either for doing her job of asking questions. Mayor Nutter’s only appearance before the SRC this spring was to tell the SRC to vote in favor of the superintendent's Imagine 2014 strategic plan.

So it leads you to wonder: Was the Commission’s most vocal member – arguably its most expert and engaged member – forced out for asking too many questions and asking for a modicum of accountability from District leadership?  And if so, what does that mean for the future of our schools and $3 billion of public money. If asking questions isn’t the job of an oversight body, then what is?

The irony of course is significant.

In November 2007, Governor Rendell heralded Commissioner Ramirez as the “most qualified” member of the SRC in terms of education background, and Mayor Nutter praised Commissioner Ramirez for her “wealth of experience in the research and implementation of urban education policy.”  No other Commissioner has matched her educational background (although Commissioner Irizarry also has a distinguished background in public school and community based education programs). The unexpected thing, apparently, was that she used her knowledge and wealth of experience to ask questions and clarify long-standing concerns in the District.

So if asking basic questions gets you a dressing down from the school chief you’re supposed to oversee and education background is irrelevant, are we then to assume that “no questions asked” is the preferred governance model of this district?

After all, it’s only been a few years since an asleep-at-the-wheel SRC woke up to the fact that a particularly willful CEO had effectively bankrupted the District. In the months following, we saw dramatic changes in leadership style at the District and SRC, and plenty of promises made to outraged parents and staff. For a while, it felt like the District was on a positive and responsive course. But it hasn’t taken long for public amnesia to settle in, and for business as usual to return to District politics.

Once again we have a particularly willful superintendent and we have an SRC that – Ramirez aside – behaves in public meetings like their charge is to not make waves and to ask few questions. And all this while the usual political jockeying and spending of $3.2 billion of public money makes its way around the system.

The loss of Heidi Ramirez – whether she was forced out or not – is a grave loss to the system and a serious step backward for public trust and public accountability. As we move forward, the question for the governor, the mayor, and the public is whether the SRC will be a board with five rubber stamps or whether it will be a board that plays the essential role of holding the system and its $3.2 billion budget accountable.

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Comments (34)

Submitted by Aissia Richardson (not verified) on August 19, 2009 12:24 pm

Thanks for reporting on this.

It seems the departure of Sandra Dungee-Glenn as SRC chair and Dr. Ramirez will leave have left an advocacy vacuum on the SRC.

With the closing of the Safe Schools advocate office, has advocacy within the district been completely exorcised?

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on August 19, 2009 5:39 pm

Nah nah nah nah...nah nah nah...nah nah nah...So long!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 19, 2009 12:00 pm

Wasn't Dungee-Glenn the reason we are now stuck with Ackerman? It seems Ramirez's departure is connected to her daring to question the Great Oz Ackerman. Two opposites from what I can see.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 19, 2009 1:23 pm

This is sad news for the students and teachers of Philadelphia's public schools. We need transparency in this system not threats and public insults.

The inner workings of the SRC and the office of the superintendent need to be scrutinized as deeply as the teachers that are committed to quality public education are scrutinized.

Get ready for a long year and fierce battle ahead.

Submitted by LeRoi Simmons (not verified) on August 19, 2009 1:29 pm

Thank you for being the drum of the school activist community. It seems that the, so called, age of transparency within the school district has come to an abrupt halt. Without the Notebook we would be at a real loss keeping tract of the 170,000 children and the $3,200,000,000.00 in the hands of a few unchecked personalities from out of town. Instead of local leaders seeking more inquirers and control of two of our greatest resources they judge those with legitimate concerns trouble makers interfering with their plans. Dr. Ramirez’ will be truly missed by me and others interested in the future of our children in the SDP. Without her it’s back to business as usual with the blank stares and disengaged rubberstamp endorsements which potentially could lead us back into the $182,000,000 hole we just dug out of. Balance one budget and ignore the other.

Submitted by Erika Owens on August 19, 2009 2:00 pm

Thank you for writing out all of those zeroes. Just seeing the word "billion" can obscure just how much money we are talking about! That's such an awesome figure.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 19, 2009 2:45 pm

While it will be sad to see Dr. Ramirez go, don't give the other commissioners such short shrift. They bring a variety of backgrounds to the work of the district and that should be a strength, not a problem. And it would be really prudent to give new Chair Robert Archie a chance. As the 'village' responsible for the education of all of our children, the District is pushing a big rock uphill this year. True, things are far, far, far, far...(did i say far) from perfect and it's great to have the Notebook keeping an eye on the budget, but don't we all have a responsibility to watch as well and even try to be helpful to make things better for the kids? Seems to me that's what Ackerman came here to do. She may be shaking alot of trees (and that is going to upset some people)....but aren't we pushing for someone to shake the trees at the District?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 19, 2009 2:25 pm

I would normally agree, but the other Commissioners have already demonstrated over the past 4 months that they are not interested in getting all that involved. The different talents and backgrounds they offer are simply not leveraged on the Commission (except for, maybe, Commissioner Irizarry). All Commissioner have the ability to ask questions -- especially with Ackerman starts to engage in double talk or fails to meet one of her mutliple deadlines for reporting out on a particular issue -- but no one does. No one says, "Wait a sec, you said something different last week or you were supposed to have a strategy in place on that issue last month." The entire point is the Heidi Ramirez is the only Commissioner to use her voice to ask those kinds of questions. Has Denise Armbrister ever said, "Arlene - you promised us school closing policy months ago."? Has Robert Archie, a partner in a massive an sophisticated law firm, ever said, "Arlene, how do you plan to budget for all of these promises you're making?" Absolutely not. And they all have had ample opportunity to do so. Attend an SRC meeting and you'll understand why losing Heidi Ramirez means losing the moral center and common sense voice of the Commission. It's like giving Ackerman free reign to do as she pleases with absolutely no oversight.... that kind of arrogant, my-way-or-the-highway thinking is exactly how people like Vince Fumo get in trouble.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 20, 2009 12:15 am

You have to be kidding! Haven't you ever bothered to google what Ackerman did in the previous school districts she invaded? Her only purpose for treeshaking is to kill the whole damn forest. She upsets people because she lacks a basic respect for people, especially those that dare to question her motives. Ackerman is for Ackerman. Too bad those hiring her hadn't bothered to check her out first. As for the commissioners, did I miss something? They seem little more than pushovers that go along with whatever scheme Ackerman has cooked up for the week. Name one original, maverick idea that would actually make the school district better. Her ideas are not only bad because most of them have been done already and failed. She just seems to think that nobody here in Philly knows about these previous failures so she can recycle them to us a something new. Things will not get "better for the kids" with Ackerman ruling the roost. This next school year will be a dangerous one. She's alienating one of the toughest teaching forces. Where does this Joanie-come-lately get the nerve to come in and start criticizing the very people that have held this school district together? Especially given her lousy track record. Shaking trees, don't make me laugh. What's next, she made the trains run on time?

Submitted by Philly High School Teacher (not verified) on August 19, 2009 4:33 pm

I concur - Ramirez was the only voice on the SRC - the others have been rubber stamps for Ackerman. I heard Ackerman speak recently - full of anecdotes and stories regarding her children, preacher father, teacher mother, etc. but no substance. Ramirez was the only one willing to question her and her administration. While I've never worked in a "democratically run" school, I'd expect a School District powers that be to at least be open to questions.

Dictators are notoriously good speakers but anyone who gets in their way or questions their authority is often sacrificed. Shame on Nutter, Rendell and the resent of the SRC for letting Ramirez be the sacrificial lamb...

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on August 19, 2009 4:00 pm

Heidi Ramirez's independence, her willingess to ask tough questionsm her committment to transparency and her respect for the community were incompatible with the mission of the SRC which is to service  the agenda of the Governor, Mayor and other power brokers who created it.

Shame on Ed Rendell who apparently sacrificed her on the altar of improving relations with the Republicans.   And shame on Mayor Nutter for his silence and inaction.

End the colonialism of state control.   We need an elected school board.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on August 19, 2009 10:29 pm

Ron Whitehorne...the elected school board...which hasn't existed since the early 2000's...is what got the schools in the deplorable condition they are in...I say, send in the Marines...

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on August 19, 2009 11:38 pm

Wrong.  The School Board that was replaced by the SRC was not elected but appointed by the mayor.   Philadelphia has not had an elected school board in at least 60 years.  Not that an elected Board is a panacea.   When we did have one in it was stocked with political hacks and controlled by the then dominant Republican machine.  But it would give the citizens a direct voice whereas now we have none.

Submitted by Mr. Smith (not verified) on August 19, 2009 6:55 pm

I never personally met Dr. Heidi Ramirez. I didn't need to officially meet her. Her actions as a leader in the city of Philadelphia speak for themselves. From what I have noticed over my past two years as a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia, Dr. Ramirez was one with power in this system that has a passion for our children and a determination to ensure that we do right by them. Our other leaders merely pay lip service to our children and their families.

I am concerned that none of the other commissioners are willing to stand up and question the steps being taken to change the School District of Philadelphia. I agree that change must be had if we are to fulfill our duties as a community to educate our children. But the change must be transparent, measured, and inspirational. Too many proposals before the SRC seem to demean and degrade both students, teachers, and families in this city. I say this, NOT as an entrenched and cynical member of the union. I say this as a young, idealistic individual willing to make sacrifices and willing to take part in systemic change for the sake of the beautiful children that sit (and stand and move around and engage in learning experiences) in my classroom.

I moved here two years ago to take up the mantle of leadership in a classroom, to take on the challenge of addressing one of this nation's greatest injustices: pervasive and persistent educational inequality along lines of class and race. However, I feel that my ability to undertake changes, to fight for my students will be greatly undermined and weakened if our system loses leaders like Dr. Ramirez, leaders willing to make the SRC accountable to the citizens of this city.

There is undoubtedly a great amount of politics that went into Rendell's decision to remove support for Dr. Ramirez. Those politics have done nothing for the children that I spend my paycheck, energy, and time to serve. Those politics keep SRC actions obscured to the citizens of this city. Those politics will merely perpetuate the same social justice atrocities that continue to plague Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the United States of America.

Submitted by Helen Gym on August 19, 2009 6:00 pm

Thanks so much for posting this and the work you're doing.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 19, 2009 8:49 pm

Ackerman really rolled her eyes? Not much to say in response to that but "wow."

Submitted by Helen Gym on August 19, 2009 8:28 pm

I was there. I also spoke to four other people who witnessed it, one of whom was a reporter who pondered whether to include it in her story but decided against it.  I think it's an important detail to include because it demonstrates the erosion of public discourse and civility in the District.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on August 19, 2009 10:01 pm

Civility in the district?

Are you serious?

Civility? I think that is anathema here...

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 19, 2009 8:08 pm

It is getting harder and harder to tacitly support the School District of Philadelphia by working for it and sending my children to its schools. Dr. Ramirez was the hope of many people in the city for her willingness to speak truth to power.

This is a chilling time in Philadelphia. The stories that came out last week about how administrators were spoken to during some of the meetings... the increasing tests in the comprehensive high schools where kids will have weekly "common assessments" in English and math, three "benchmark tests" and three "PSSA-aligned" tests (and of course, the PSSA themselves... the continued attack on dissent with the comment, "You aren't concerned with what is best for kids..." and, of course, the continued flow of money from public budgets to companies providing "instructional services" like benchmark tests and scripted curriculum... soon there will be very little left to recognize in our "public" schools.

How long will Mayor Nutter and Governor Rendell allow this to to continue. Sadly, today's events suggest that the answer is "for a long, long time."

Submitted by MsChips (not verified) on August 19, 2009 9:05 pm

Reality is hard to accept:
Ackerman was hired to dismantle public education in Philadelphia, and is doing an efficient job. Dr. Ramerez was working for the good of schools & kids, and clearly was out of place. Her questions were what a reasonable person would ask, and her concerns were responsible ones. She is the only person in the city who has dared to challenge the blow hard superintendent.

There seems to be no recognition that the main purpose of the SDP today is to funnel money as quickly as possible from public school classrooms to private hands. We are the largest school entity in the US with NO public input. The dwarves left on the RC who are deciding on where billions of dollars will go were not appointed because of their expertise in education or passion for progress.

Under this "leadership", the district will continue trivializing our kids' education with Tony Danza and unqualified teachers, with curricula written by testing companies' sales reps, and with simple processes, like cleaning and record keeping, sliced & diced in ways to produce maximum billing.

Shame on all of us.

Submitted by alan kaman (not verified) on August 19, 2009 10:19 pm

Get rid of the only one who actually knew something about education and then wonder why our system is so fouled up.
Only a politician could screw this up so badly and for so long.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on August 19, 2009 10:09 pm

Alan Kaman...why do you say this?
Was she that good?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 20, 2009 11:23 am

The Mayor and Governor cheer from the sidelines while Arlene Ackerman continues her Sherman-like march through The School District of Philadelphia.

And, now that she's landed the Tony Danza show, there's really no point in wondering "Who's the Boss?"

Best wishes to Dr, Ramerez. You're courage and honesty will be sorely missed.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 20, 2009 6:20 pm

All I can say is Nutter is a one-term mayor, and fast Eddie's political career is in its final days. The public needs to wake up. We made a grave mistake in voting these lame duck politicians into office, and it is now up to us to vote them out.

Submitted by JT (not verified) on August 20, 2009 7:12 pm

DON'T MOURN, ORGANIZE!
We, the people, need to demonstrate our displeasure with the decisions being made and the so-called "leadership" of Dr. Hacker. Blogs and twitters are all well and good, but there's nothing like a large, vocal (and peaceful) crowd for getting the message out, that Philadelphia's children deserve better.

Submitted by Helen Gym on August 21, 2009 5:38 pm

There is a petition circulating supporting Heidi Ramirez. You can view it here.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 20, 2009 7:42 pm

I put a motion on the table that we nominate Dr. Heidi Ramirez to replace Dr. Arlene Ackerman as the Superintendent for the School District of Philadelphia. Anyone want to second that motion? She is clearly more knowledgeable and more qualified than Ackerman to hold this prestigious position. Not to mention that she has impeccable people skills and wisdom well beyond her years. Could it be that Ackerman showed her no love because she felt threatened by her? hmmm....just some food for thought.

Submitted by RaulCabrero (not verified) on August 21, 2009 1:15 pm

Shouldn't we be focusing on children with school starting in a few weeks instead of all the adult finger pointing and accusations? I'll say it again, as far as we know Dr. Ramirez did not have to resign. She chose to resign. If the governor withdrew her nomination, then that's for the governor to address. Reality is, Heidi was a political appointee and you can be only so independent when you are immersed in politics. The SRC is a political body created by the state Republicans. Let's not forget who funds the schools and who can cut the funding.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 21, 2009 3:22 pm

Did you read the Inquirer story today on the fact that the Governor was peddling Ramirez' position a month ago? Let's agree that there was considerable pressure put on her to resign.

And for those people who say "let's focus on kids" - maybe when they show up next year and wonder why their school didn't see an increase in actual school based funding while the district gets the biggest boost its seen in years, or when they wonder why their school might be targeted for turnover under Imagine 2014, or why there's Tony Danza in the classroom rather than a real teacher, or heaven forbid a teacher strike shuts down the system - maybe then you'll realize that it's not us that has to focus on the kids. That's all we folks do. It's the fact that adult leadership at the SRC and District has gotten so consumed in politics and rubber stamping and greedily spending money on contracts for political favors that we're in this mess.

Submitted by Christina (not verified) on August 25, 2009 5:02 pm

I know I'm jumping onto these posts a little late, but I really wish I'd known about the good work Heidi was trying to do on the SRC BEFORE she resigned. I have this image of the SRC as totally separate from my work in the classroom. I do know Commissioner Irizarry from his work at the Lighthouse when I was a teacher in Kensington and respect him deeply. But, I have not found a good way to connect in a substantive way to the SRC. And in Heidi's case... maybe if we'd all rallied around her, and she felt real support from teachers, she would still be around. I'm also interested in the reporting I've read about race and the Ackerman/Ramirez relationship.

Submitted by Helen Gym on August 25, 2009 6:05 pm

Christina I hope to post soon re: your last concern.

Submitted by Gamal Sherif on August 27, 2011 2:04 pm

It's as if Dr. Ackerman's dramatic departure could have been predicted two years ago. Nice reporting, Helen!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 27, 2011 3:14 pm

Get this lady back.

The SDP desperately needs her.

The writing was on the wall 2 years ago.

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