Amid outrage, SRC approves buyout
by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook, WHYY/NewsWorks
Former Philadelphia schools superintendent Arlene Ackerman is gone, but the controversy surrounding her departure is far from over.
At a meeting on Wednesday full of vitriol, fury, and charges of racism, School Reform Commission (SRC) voted unanimously to approve a $905,000 buyout and related separation agreement.
The commissioners refused to comment, however, on what led to their decision to oust Ackerman just six months after granting her a one-year contract extension. They also declined to identify the anonymous donors who contributed $405,000 to her buyout package.
The separation agreement contains a "non-disparagement" provision in which both parties agree to not make comments about each other that are "malicious, wanton, or reckless in nature or...reasonably foreseeable to injure" their respective reputations.
The commissioners' silence was met with a barrage of insults and accusations. Numerous speakers, including longtime West Philadelphia community activist Novella Williams, denounced in inflammatory terms SRC Chairman Robert Archie, Mayor Michael Nutter, and others for their role in Ackerman's ouster.
"She deserved not to be lynched by three or four Black men," said Williams.
Speakers repeatedly used explosive language. One said scaling back Ackerman's Promise Academy initiative was "like turning hoses on little children." Others said the SRC "stole Dr. Ackerman's job" and that she was "was another Black woman beat up and trashed." Still others accused the SRC of "carrying the White man's water" and favoring "White racist supremacist unions" over African American contractors.
Some in the raucous crowd shouted down at least one speaker who didn't agree with them.
Though Ackerman was not present at the meeting, she spoke extensively on the circumstances surrounding her ouster to two separate media outlets.
In an interview with Education Week, Ackerman identified two events that she says precipitated her demise: the imbroglio at Martin Luther King High during this year's Renaissance Schools matching process, and the furor that resulted when she found last-minute funding to restore full-day kindergarten as part of the District's ongoing budget crisis.
Ackerman told Education Week that it was Mayor Nutter's idea to eliminate full-day kindergarten.
"I really didn't want to do it, I really didn't feel good about it," she said.
Asked about Ackerman's contention, District Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch was emphatic in his response.
"The entire gap-closing plan was developed by the management team here at the school District, and no one else," said Masch.
Mark McDonald, the mayor's press secretary, declined to respond directly to Ackerman's comments in Education Week.
“The mayor appreciates Dr. Ackerman’s service but he has no interest to respond to her emotional remarks,” he said.
In a separate interview with Fox 29 News, Ackerman said she wanted to keep her job, but that she was asked to leave.
"I was told that the SRC did not want to work with me anymore," she said. "That wasn't my choice."
McDonald disputed that claim, saying that a “meeting of the minds” between Ackerman and the SRC occurred "seven or eight weeks ago," and that the outcome of their discussion was a mutual agreement that Ackerman should resign.
“From then and until this week they attempted to work out the financial arrangements to achieve this mutually agreed upon goal,” he said.
The dozens of supporters who turned out for Wednesday's SRC meeting, however, echoed Ackerman's contention that '"politics" were her undoing.
"Her crime was that she did not kiss the rumps of the politicians," said attorney Leon Williams.
Multiple speakers called for the resignation of the current SRC commissioners, and several expressed dissatisfaction with the terms of Ackerman's separation agreement.
State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas of North Philadelphia said the lack of transparency surrounding the anonymous contributors to Ackerman's buyout fund was one reason he could not support the agreement.
"We must identify the private donors of this deal," said Thomas.
At the start of the meeting, all eyes were on Chairman Archie. His entrance to the auditorium at District headquarters was met with boos from many of those assembled.
"These are our children, not yours," yelled one audience member.
During brief opening remarks that lasted less than a minute, Archie said that he and his fellow commissioners are "committed to a smooth and successful school opening" despite "changes and challenges over the past weeks."
"Our main focus is the children," said Archie. "Going forward, we hope to put all the other distractions aside and focus on what is best for them and their futures."
After the vote, activist Venard Johnson repeatedly pressed the SRC to respond to the barrage of criticism.
New Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery finally responded, telling Johnson, "We will meet."
Archie and his fellow commissioners rushed from the auditorium following the meeting, refusing to answer questions from media. School police officers blocked reporters' access to them.
Largely lost in the tumult was Nunery's attempt to introduce himself to the public, two days after he was tapped to replace his former boss.
Nunery described himself as a "God-fearing, intellectually curious, entrepreneurially minded, technologically able and pragmatic African-American man."
But for the former superintendent's supporters who dominated Wednesday's meeting, it was Ackerman's considerable shadow that defined Nunery.
"It just doesn't look right when somebody is lynched and her deputy winds up with her job," said Leon Williams.
Listen to Benjamin Herold's radio report on Wednesday's SRC meeting.