Why Arlene Ackerman Failed

What she could have learned from Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey

Of the many remarkable remarks Arlene Ackerman unleashed in her final days as superintendent, there was one that struck me as particularly telling: “Is it a crime to stand up for children instead of stooping down into the political sandbox?”

She made the comment in her bizarre appearance last Thursday in front of a largely supportive crowd of hundreds of school principals. The contempt fairly dripped from her mouth. “Stooping.” “Sandbox.” Here is a woman who considers education to be a calling far, far above the plane of politics. And she considers herself to be far, far superior to her political masters.

Ackerman’s failings as superintendent were legion, but it was her self-evident disgust for politics and politicians that did her in.

Yesterday, at a City Hall news conference where he confirmed Ackerman had been let go, Nutter said that the School Reform Commission had started talking about firing her in June or July. Recall that it was in early June where Ackerman cut Nutter off at the knees by suddenly finding funding for full-day kindergarten, thus depriving the mayor of his ace card in budget dealings with City Council. I wonder how long it took for the Arlene-must-go conversation to start after that? Twenty-four hours? Less?

Nutter spent the entire press conference trying to downplay his role in Ackerman’s firing. There was “never any pressure” from Nutter to get rid of Ackerman, he said. This is bullshit. Nutter was furious following Ackerman’s budget performance. If he didn’t directly instruct the School Reform Commission to fire Ackerman, it was only because his public response was instruction enough to get rid of her. And keep in mind that Nutter appoints two of the five SRC members directly. A third, Denise McGregor Armbrister, is the wife of Nutter’s former chief of staff, Clay Armbrister.

Nutter had the SRC wired, which means the reason Ackerman didn’t get her parting gifts earlier was because Nutter wanted her on the job. He stood by her through her horrific handling of the racial violence at South Philly High, the ham-handed awarding of a lucrative contract to a minority-owned firm (in violation of district regulations), the Orwellian crackdowns on leakers and Hope Moffett.

It was only after Ackerman embarrassed Nutter publicly that the machinery to oust her creaked into motion. Ackerman is right about this much: It’s not the noblest reason to get rid of a superintendent.

But however much Ackerman might wish otherwise, the position of big city school chief is extraordinarily political. With the possible exception of police commissioner, there is no more politically charged, non-elected position in local government. A successful schools chief needs to nimbly dance through race and class minefields. She needs to cultivate relationships with politicians—in the city and Harrisburg—who control the district’s purse strings. She needs to engage, and actually listen to, the whole parent population, not just a favored few. Ackerman failed spectacularly at all these political jobs.

Compare her performance to Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. Where Ackerman fueled racial tension, Ramsey eases it. He sees the point in maintaining good relations not just with Nutter, his boss, but with City Council, a group of people Ackerman treated like kindergarteners. Ramsey is even on relatively good terms with the FOP, compared to a teachers’ union that point blank refused to negotiate so long as Ackerman was superintendent.

Ackerman likes to say that she’s all about the kids, and I get that she wishes all the noise would fade away so she could do what she thinks is best. But that’s just not the real world, and it’s kind of amazing that a 63-year-old vet like Ackerman still acts as though it is. I’m reminded of a five-year-old, sticking her tongue out at the world, fingers plugged into her ears, screaming “nyah, nyah, nyah, I can’t hear you.”