Arlene Ackerman Profile: Queen Arlene

Philadelphia schools head Arlene Ackerman arrived a year and a half ago with a strong résumé on education but an unwillingness to play politics. So just how long do you think she’ll last in this town?

Arlene Ackerman does court school district parents — almost to the exclusion of everyone else.

She holds monthly parent roundtables and more intimate affairs in private homes. I watched her spend nearly two hours in a North Philadelphia house, quietly taking notes while roughly 18 parents bitched a blue streak about their children’s lackluster schools. Even her critics acknowledge she’s courting parents with a special fervor. But the sight of Ackerman scribbling furiously to keep up with what someone else is suggesting she do seems telling. That’s not the same person who has shown up in other venues — the person who’s secretive, guarded, ready to do battle. The difference is that these parents aren’t hammering away at Ackerman; they’re criticizing the system she inherited. So she’s ready to make time for them in a way she simply won’t for others.

The most troubling example of Ackerman’s scorched-earth strategy was probably her rough handling of former state School Reform Commissioner Heidi Ramirez. A 35-year-old academic with a doctorate from Stanford, Ramirez was the first member of the SRC to boast a background in education, thereby arriving with built-in public support. It was her frequent interrogations of Ackerman, however, that lent her a kind of moral authority. “She seemed to be asking substantive questions,” says LeRoi Simmons. “The rest of the commissioners were sitting there like potted plants.”

A more polished politician than Ackerman probably could have wheedled Ramirez’s support, or found a way to neutralize her. After all, Ramirez had never taught in a city classroom or managed the school districts of two A-list American cities. Ackerman had. But for months, Ramirez would ask the same questions: What are the long-term staffing needs for city teachers? What will the final cost be of Ackerman’s educational initiatives?

Ackerman habitually failed to supply answers, and has said, then and now, that Ramirez was guilty of micromanaging and asking questions that required too much staff time to answer. Some of the speculation, in the months since, has centered on the role race might have played in the rivalry between the Latina commissioner and the African-American schools chief. But Ackerman has been dismissive of her critics regardless of race. And so in her dealings with Ramirez, she simply appeared truculent and unresponsive, while Ramirez looked more like a champ all the time.

Then, last August, Ramirez quit. She declines to tell her side of the story. But the most credible version of events is that Ramirez offered her resignation because she felt her feud with Ackerman had become a distraction. Ackerman insists she played no role in Ramirez’s exit: “As far as I’m concerned, she could still be here.”

But on the night Ramirez resigned, Ackerman’s body language told another story. Ramirez had just finished a tearful resignation speech, at an open SRC hearing, and the crowd stood to applaud. Ackerman was among the last to stand, pushing her chair back brusquely and thudding the heels of her hands together in perfunctory seal claps.