Queen Arlene Is Earning Her Nickname

The Inky's school violence series might not be the worst thing about the district that made it into print this week

On Sunday, the Inquirer began a seven-day series on violence in Philadelphia public schools. The coverage has been damning, filled with sentences like this: “On an average day, 25 students, teachers, or other staff members were beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted or victims of other violent crimes.” And still the story might not have even been the most damaging article featuring School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to appear in the Inquirer recently.

Yesterday, former Inquirer reporter Dwight Ott penned an op-ed for the paper titled “How I learned not to call Ackerman at home.” In it, Ott, who was working on assignment for the Philadelphia Tribune, describes how he placed a fruitless phone call to Ackerman’s home to ask her about rumors that her home and car had been vandalized. Ott writes that Ackerman didn’t say much at all.

“Two plainclothes Philadelphia police detectives showed up at the door of my house in South Jersey … My ensuing chat with the police took about an hour, over the course of which they questioned me extensively and asked to use my computer—which, having nothing to hide, I also allowed them to do… When the episode was finally over, it began to sink in that I had just been accused of threatening the life of a public official—and extensively interrogated by the police—simply because I had the audacity to call her at home.”

Full disclosure: I know and like Ott. Which is why I can say it is ludicrous that Ackerman would have considered him a threat. The man is a gentle, old-school reporter with a talent for wheedling stories out of a subset of the city that the press often ignores. Plus, he stores notes from interviews in his hat (yes, his hat).

On its own, an episode like this could be dismissed as a misunderstanding. But this is hardly the first time Ackerman has displayed dictatorial qualities. There was the district’s aborted plan to fire Hope Moffet (the teacher who dared dissent), and her crackdown last year on staffers suspected of leaking information to the press. Further back, there was her disastrous appearance in front of City Council last May and her tone deaf response to the racially motivated violence at South Philadelphia High.

I thought Ackerman’s many critics had judged her too fast. It seemed hasty to me when Buzz Bissinger dubbed her “Queen Arlene” back in 2009. Obviously I was wrong. Whatever her qualities as an educator, Ackerman has got to get a handle on her imperial impulses.

Follow Patrick Kerkstra on Twitter at twitter.com/pkerkstra.