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Arlene Ackerman's last days
The final act of Arlene Ackerman’s tenure should come with little surprise but plenty of outrage at the local and state powers who have let it drag out in such bitter, toxic fashion.
The last two School Reform Commission meetings and the media attention around them have been, frankly, a citywide embarrassment and alarming to parents, school staff and community organizations working frantically to get ready for the start of school. We’ve got more than a thousand vacancies districtwide – a terrifying number considering that it’s less than three weeks before teachers report for their first day.
Yet paralysis has gripped the District with the political silence around Ackerman’s tenure.
Few doubt that there’s backroom negotiation to push her out while her lawyers try to finagle a reputed $1.5 million buyout. But in public, the SRC mouths its feeble support, the mayor has publicly declined comment, and the governor remains AWOL.
Meanwhile, Ackerman is playing her own games, meeting with supporters, calling into radio stations, and feeding into the rallies organized on her behalf to leverage her own negotiating power. The energy she puts into these efforts makes one wonder if she basks in this kind of controversy and divisiveness - after all, it deflects attention from her actual practice. For those familiar with Ackerman’s tenure in San Francisco, a bitter and ugly fight to the finish is part and parcel of this superintendent’s history.
The SRC dug themselves into this mess when they perfunctorily extended Ackerman’s contract in March. At the time, they had plenty to go on for termination of her contract for cause – from financial mismanagement to civil rights abuses. Instead, they chose to look the other way on multiple egregious offenses. Now they’re stuck with the impossible choice of paying a million-plus dollar buyout in the midst of a financial crisis or figuring out some way to force out someone who has no qualms in making sure her exit is as polarizing, ugly, and contaminating as possible.
It didn’t happen this way in 2006 with former Superintendent Paul Vallas, who faced public excoriation from everyone from City Council to the state legislature once a $73 million deficit was announced. The public acknowledgement that Vallas had failed in his mission as a financial manager and lost faith with city and state leaders left no question that we needed new leadership. He exited the city quickly, and we moved on.
We can’t move forward right now.
With their silence, the powers who govern and maintain responsibility for the District have rendered themselves impotent, morally and politically absent and have left the city in a place of racial and class hostility and division. There’s a lack of trust and a loss of priorities, communities and schools are manipulated and pitted against one another, and there’s increasing disgust on all fronts.
It seems baffling why the SRC, mayor and governor aren’t highlighting the current bungling of the superintendent. From organizational chaos to financial mismanagement, the grounds that justify termination for cause seem to grow.
Among her most recent egregious actions:
- A budget year fail: In the midst of the worst financial crisis in the history of the District, Ackerman clung to questionable pet projects – like Saturday school at Promise Academies and enrichment programs for summer school – then played a losing game of chicken with the state legislature around the school budget. When their state budget projections fell apart, it became eminently clear the District had few plans to handle the dramatic budget reductions. Everything from layoffs and programs being shuttered was handled poorly and hastily. Oh yeah, and she sabotaged relationships from City Hall to Harrisburg at the same time, too.
- Delaying teacher assignments: By my calculations, only 15 percent of schools are fully staffed for September. Over 200 schools districtwide have vacancies. Carnell Elementary and Overbrook High School have 20 or more vacancies apiece as of this writing. It’s not clear why the District allowed a grievance over Promise Academy layoffs to hold up the whole process. Now our schools are going to have a mad scramble to fill their vacancies with qualified teachers.
- No management structure: We are six weeks into the fiscal year and there’s still no organizational chart for the schools. It’s not just about what’s on paper either. I hear numerous complaints that staff don’t know who’s in charge of what anymore.
- A bungled summer program: Ackerman insisted on her $18 million, 18-day summer school. When the media publicized poor attendance, the District moved to cut sites and teachers resulting in a chaotic shuffle.
- A rogue superintendency?: On Friday afternoon, Ackerman reportedly called into 900/WURD and said that “they” wanted her out but that she would “[fight] like hell” for “the children.” The night before this week’s fiery SRC meeting where supporters called the SRC liars and threatened to “call out the troops,” Ackerman held a meeting with supporters saying she was being targeted. Going to war with your bosses is always foolhardy and should come with repercussions.
One last point: If there’s one lesson we should remember about education reform, it’s that it relies less on numbers, data and yes even money, than it does on the delicate fabric of community and social trust. These relationships determine the sustainability and engagement of a whole society’s efforts to educate our children. The political silence has allowed hyperbolic rhetoric to step in and threaten that already fragile social compact. A voice of moral leadership at a time when our public schools are facing their most dramatic financial and leadership crisis in a decade is the most important thing the SRC, our mayor and governor can do.
To the commissioners, our mayor and governor: Your silence is not that kind of leadership. It’s time for swift action. End the circus around Arlene Ackerman, and let’s move on.