Nutter, Ackerman Split

The kids drove them apart

It looks like the strange, strained alliance between Mayor Nutter and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is finally over, a victim of good news delivered at the wrong time. The split came Friday, when Ackerman announced—much to Nutter’s surprise—that she had found a way to fund all-day kindergarten despite the school district’s budget crisis.

This is, of course, a positive development. But it also robbed the mayor of his best argument for a tax hike to generate new cash for the schools. Kindergarten was his ace card in the coming showdown with council. He could say: Help me help the kids. Let’s reduce childhood obesity and rescue kindergarten with a soda tax.

Then Ackerman cut Nutter off at the knees. She found a way to use restricted federal funds to pay for kindergarten, and she didn’t tell Nutter about any of it until an hour ahead of the public announcement.

The Mayor looked out of the loop. Worse, he looked opportunistic. If full-day kindergarten could be salvaged with a little bureaucratic shuffling, what was he doing acting as though only tax hikes could save the children? He was, as Tom Ferrick likes to put it, threatening to kill the kitty.

And so Nutter, who had stood by Ackerman through her bungling of racial violence at South Philadelphia High, her mishandling of contracts and an ongoing federal audit (to name just a few controversies), hit Ackerman back. Hard.

In a nine-page letter delivered to Ackerman (and the press) Sunday night, Nutter demanded that the school district open its books. He demanded more city say in what the district does with its money. He implied that the district, and the School Reform Commission, was not sufficiently accountable to him and City Council.

The letter was a highly public takedown. It also came across as a guy letting off some steam, and finally saying things he pretty clearly has been thinking for a while. Nutter, more than just about any pol in this town, has a mania for transparency, accountability and process. I don’t mean to imply that his administration always practices what the Mayor preaches. It doesn’t. But Nutter rarely misses a chance to demand accountability from other players: the BRT, the Sheriff’s Office, the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

And yet he bit his tongue repeatedly for Ackerman’s sake. Some surmise it was to shore up his support in the African American community, particularly the city’s established black leadership. Others think it was because he was focused on test scores and graduation rates, where Ackerman has gotten results.

That’s all over now. In an interview with the Inquirer yesterday, Ackerman tried to mend fences. She apologized to the mayor. Kind of.

“I made an educational decision, which obviously had political fallout,” Ackerman told the Inquirer. “I had good intentions. I’m sorry for whatever embarrassment this caused for the Mayor.”

Translation: I did it for the kids. Unlike Nutter I wasn’t worried about petty things like politics.

Now it’s not really a big deal that the Mayor was embarrassed. Who cares about Nutter’s feelings, after all, if it means full-day kindergarten is back? But relationships matter in politics. And if the incident has cost Ackerman yet another ally, her highest-profile supporter of all, then it is a very big deal. Without Nutter at her back, how much longer will Ackerman collect a paycheck in this town?