School Reform Commission

Getting The Story Straight on How Decisions Were Made at The School District

Already the news articles and columns have begun attempting to paint former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman as the victim in recent events. Opinions are being expressed that she must have been telling the truth about her role in the Martin Luther King High School debacle. Annette John-Hall even offered an open apology to Ackerman in her Inquirer column last week.

Before we all appear to have been flashy-thinged by the Men in Black, let’s take a reality check here. We are being asked to believe that all of Ackerman’s testimony in the recent report issued by Mayor Nutter’s Chief Integrity Officer is true. We are being asked to believe that her story, unchallenged by any credible witnesses, is gospel. However, the only others present at meetings described by her—State Representative Dwight Evans and his associates-- refused to give testimony; those present during phone calls were colleagues and staff whose interests lie with Dr. Ackerman.

We don’t need to turn back the pages of recent history too far to remind ourselves of all the prevarications, disingenuous answers and outright lies uttered by Dr. Ackerman during her reign in Philadelphia.

When the story of the backroom meeting with SRC Chair Robert Archie and Dwight Evans broke this past March, Ackerman’s spokesperson maintained that she knew nothing about it. After a month of rumor and speculation, Assistant Superintendent Leroy Nunery finally admitted —through his representative— to being the “unnamed district representative” present at that meeting in Martha Woodall’s April 24 Inquirer story. However, Dr. Nunery’s testimony in the recently published report states not only that he was there but that he immediately reported the events to Ackerman, describing the meeting to her as something out of “the Godfather”. Begging the question: Was she lying then or is she lying now?

Let us recount just some of the incidents over the years in which Dr. Ackerman has been less than honest. Her excuse for not immediately dealing with the crisis at South Philadelphia High School was that an Asian student actually incited the violence by harassing an African-American disabled student, a story for which she offered no proof and which has never been verified. She claimed to be out of town when the attempted silencing and termination of teacher Hope Moffet began; she used that same excuse when the District tried to change the acceptance process for magnet schools without parent notification (she has no phone or email?). She initially denied playing any part in the no-bid contract scandal in which business was diverted from one company, which had already begun the work, to another (non-approved) company. When caught in that lie, she said that she was only trying to help out minority businesses. She held an awards ceremony at Roosevelt Middle School after test scores rose fifty-three points in just two years, a feat which she must known was statistically impossible. She has yet to explain how she allowed several administrators, including South Philadelphia High School Principal LaGreta Brown, to be appointed by the school district without full accreditation. Throughout this past summer, Ackerman insisted that she was not leaving, telling her own supporters “I’m staying” while simultaneously negotiating her exit contract. She violated that same contract by subsequently engaging in public slander against her former colleagues.

Let us not forget the most egregious lie of all: that she did not know that the school district was heading towards a massive deficit which has had a disastrous effect on every school in Philadelphia. She offered her highly questionable explanation in an interview given after she resigned: “I didn’t understand the numbers.”

So when Dr. Ackerman says in the city’s report that she did not know that Melonease Shaw, to whom she paid thousands of school district dollars for “consulting”, was affiliated with Representative Evans, I believe that some skepticism on the part of the public is to be expected. When we hesitate to take seriously her assertion that she never knew that politics was involved in running a major city school district, can you really blame us?

Some crucial questions remain unanswered: how did Mosaica, whose CEO John Porter is a identified in the report as a colleague of Dr. Ackerman’s at the Broad Academy (a privately-funded institution which schools future superintendents according to a pro-charter, pro-voucher curriculum), come to be a finalist on the list of providers at Martin Luther King High? And how is Ackerman shocked, shocked at Chairman Archie’s actions in overriding the wishes of a school community after having done the same herself in more than one instance? When the West Philadelphia High School community protested the unexpected takeover of their school, Ackerman’s response was to accuse the parents of a having a conflict of interest. When students, teachers and parents protested the unjustified giveaway of Audenreid High to Kenny Gamble’s Universal company, their wishes were ignored. Now we are to believe that she found this recent overriding of parents at King “tragic”.

Dr. Ackerman’s account of recent events should be investigated in a follow-up report. The inappropriate, possibly illegal, acts of Chairman Archie and Rep. Evans are brought to light in this report and both should face the consequences for those acts and the subsequent cover-up. Why should we spend the time and energy doing the same regarding Dr. Ackerman’s possible transgressions? First, we must ensure that no future superintendent will be allowed to take on the mantle of royalty and go unchallenged by her own superiors. And the most important reason: because the public has a right to know.

Lisa Haver is an education activist; she recently retired from teaching middle school in Philadelphia.

School Reform: Let's get it Right This Time

We have seen Robert Archie resign due to his scandalous behavior. We have seen Dr. Ackerman removed from office after fostering an administration that ignored racial violence and promoted policies that covered up violence. Her policies encouraged cheating within our schools, and she stole from taxpayers by having us pay for her public relations team. Add to that she created an aura of racism by steering contracts to minority owned firms, and often spoke as if only the African American children mattered to her.
Our city is multi-cultural. Whites make up well over 40% of the overall population, yet only 13% of our children attending public schools are White. If it were the other way around African Americans would be screaming racism.
But I am not writing this to make points about race. A child raised in poverty faces the same issues regardless of color. The time has come to make our school system and our city color blind. Brothers and Sisters can’t run the city, Philadelphians must.
The School Reform Commission is a failed experiment and I applaud Mayor Nutter for wanting control. But let us not forget Archie was his pick and he at one time supported Dr. Ackerman. Our schools like our government need a system of checks and balances to operate properly. As results in Plattsburg, New York and the (for real) ABC School District Southeast of Los Angeles demonstrate, high poverty populations can achieve academically and improve dramatically when teachers are part of the solution instead of being held out for blame.
When you were younger all readers here I’m sure would have been in trouble if they did not listen to their teacher. Some things don’t change just because we're older. This city and its children will benefit by having the teachers represented at the school policy table. The citizens of Philadelphia should insist that our politicians listen to our teachers and not to lobbyists seeking contracts for their for clients.

State Senator Larry Farnese explains the bill to abolish the SRC, we talk Van Jones, Jobs Plan, and Picnic @ PFC Meetup Tonight

For the benefit of those immune to the awesomeness of Rick Perry's hair, Michele Bachmann's facts, and Mitt Romney's sparkling, human-like personality (is he plugged into a power strip or isn't he?), a political meeting will be held tonight.

Will the School Reform Commission continue to rule Philly's School District? Philly For Change Meetup is pleased to host State Senator Larry Farnese tonight, as he addresses the bill that would abolish the SRC and talks about what could or should come next. Larry is the grandson of a former Philadelphia School Superintendent, so no doubt this is a big issue for him, and the departure of Arlene Ackerman provides an apt time to discuss big picture changes to the district. It's a discussion not to be missed.

Also featured on the bill tonight is Philly For Change's formal introduction into the AMERICAN DREAM MOVEMENT, spearheaded by green jobs activist Van Jones, with participants including our national affiliate Democracy For America, Campaign For America's Future, and other major progressive groups. This is Progressive America finally getting organized, with a real national economic campaign and a platform, the Contract for the American Dream, that could have an impact on politics today and on the elections next year. Most of all, it's progressives fighting back for jobs and the American economy. It's an exciting movement, and PFC is very happy to get in on the ground floor. Tonight's event includes participation, so stop by in person. More events to follow.

Other big issues for Young Philly Politics readers on the bill tonight are the proposed changes to Philadelphia's immigration laws (well described here by Dan) and the very critical, under-publicized issue of the changes that City government will soon make to the Council map.

Also, we'll discuss the Philly For Change Picnic. (It can't rain forever!)

A scandal that can't be ignored

(This entry was cross-posted at the Public School Notebook)

Recent revelations about the role of School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie in the awarding of a school contract that could be worth up to $60 million demand a full investigation from state agencies and a response from Mayor Nutter.

According to a Public School Notebook/NewsWorks investigation, Archie used his role as SRC chair to effectively nullify the decision to give Martin Luther King High School to one charter organization and lobbied instead in favor of the nonprofit Foundations, Inc. – even though Archie acknowledged a conflict of interest that required his recusal from voting. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman claims her top deputy was “shocked” by what went on in one meeting run by Archie and is distancing herself from the affair. Yet her statements seem to contradict what the superintendent said she previously knew and when she knew it, and they don't explain Ackerman's own lack of action.

Foundations, which is closely tied with State Rep. Dwight Evans and has been represented by Archie’s law firm, withdrew its bid from King High School last week following the Notebook/NewsWorks investigation, citing a climate of “unrelenting hostility” from a “vocal minority.”

Foundations’ withdrawal shouldn’t mean the SRC and District officials get to retreat behind closed doors. Instead, Foundations’ decision should strengthen the resolve to investigate what increasingly looks like serious wrongdoing.

Consider:

  1. On March 16, the SRC voted to give King High School to Mosaica Turnaround Partners, a for-profit, Atlanta-based charter school organization. Immediately after the SRC voted, Commissioner Archie joined Rep. Evans in a private meeting at District headquarters with Mosaica’s John Porter. After denying knowledge of the meeting details for over a month, District officials finally admitted that Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery was present and had been ordered by Archie to call in Porter. That encounter was clearly influential. Before it occurred, Porter said he was “ecstatic” to win the King vote. Less than 24 hours later, Porter abruptly withdrew Mosaica’s bid.
  2. A parent volunteer with the King SAC reported that in a one-on-one encounter with Archie on April 12, Archie told her she “did not have a choice” in what he called “a done deal” at King. The parent said Archie offered to be personally accountable for Foundations, including writing into the deal certain provisions the SAC wanted. The parent declined Archie’s offer.
  3. The next day, members of the King SAC met with the full SRC and Ackerman in a closed-door meeting. SAC members reported that Archie seemed to question the validity of their vote, while the other commissioners and Ackerman remained mostly silent on King’s management. The two SAC members in the room were brought to tears during the meeting. They said afterwards they were “furious” with Archie’s role and demanded an investigation.

In failing to raise any questions about Archie’s or its own behavior, the SRC demonstrates a clear double standard around conflict of interest. Last year, the SRC halted plans for West Philadelphia High School, citing a “conflict of interest” complaint against parents who had received an $8 an hour stipend to improve parent engagement from a subcontractor of one of West's potential turnaround partners. The District’s Inspector General even investigated the parents, a probe that went nowhere.

At the time, Ackerman was quoted as saying:

"If there's a perception or appearance of a conflict of interest, wouldn't you want this District to do something about it?” asked Ackerman.

Yet, weeks after Archie’s troubling involvement at King High School, no similar action has been taken.

There are still contradictory accounts of people's roles and their actions, or lack thereof.

Regarding the private meeting with Mosaica's Porter, Archie last week issued a brief statement acknowledging his presence “in his capacity as School Reform Commission chairman.” However, he has refused repeated requests by the Notebook/NewsWorks to answer questions about his overall conduct. Other SRC commissioners remain equally silent.

Commissioner Archie and the entire SRC must answer questions about their role in this process. Archie also needs to disclose his specific conflict of interest that required his recusal from voting but apparently not his actions behind closed doors.

The superintendent’s predictable habit of blaming others and refusing to accept responsibility can't be tolerated as a shield. Ackerman, who earlier denied any knowledge of what happened in that fateful meeting, now claims her deputy Nunery never provided her with details - and still has not to this day. Ackerman needs to explain why she continued go along with Foundations’ bid until the Notebook/NewsWorks investigation became public.

At this point, the state Inspector General or the state Attorney General’s office must conduct an investigation into the SRC, which is a state body. Depending on the results of that investigation, further action may need to happen from agencies higher up.

Mayor Nutter, who has often distanced himself from the District’s myriad problems, needs to address this growing scandal immediately. Archie was Nutter’s choice for SRC commissioner in 2009. The best thing would be for the Mayor to quietly ask Archie to step aside and lead the call for a full investigation. In the midst of a critical state budget, Philadelphia can’t afford to let questionable behavior overshadow the effort to reinstate education funding by Harrisburg.

Allowing the corrupted process at King to remain uninvestigated will further erode public confidence in the integrity of this administration to steer itself through yet another crisis.

Top 10 Education Stories of 2010

From rising test scores to a Justice Department settlement about “unlawful discrimination” against Asian immigrant youth at South Philadelphia High School, education news this year was more prominent than ever. Money poured into the district thanks to stimulus funds and Gov. Rendell’s commitment to an education funding formula. But it was the spending of that money that came under scrutiny, from contracts to salaries to million dollar turnstiles at District headquarters. Here’s my pick for the biggest local education stories of the year.

10. Big money for vouchers in the gubernatorial race: When three suburban Philadelphia businessmen made an unprecedented seven figure contribution to Sen. Anthony Williams’ gubernatorial campaign, you can bet folks sat up and noticed. The reason for the investment was clear: revive vouchers. A Republican sweep of the governor’s office and legislature make it likely this 90’s-era relic will re-surface statewide and in Philadelphia.

9. Minority contracting: The Inquirer’s investigation into Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s role in steering a $7.5 million no-bid security contract to a Black-owned business unleashed renewed complaints about the District’s poor numbers in minority contracting. Black-owned participation is a dismal 13% in the District; white female-owned is 9%, and Hispanic-owned comes in at 4%. Asian Americans receive less than one half of one percent of District business. The question remains whether the District will engage in a transparent process as it tries to improve those numbers.

8. Where's the SRC? Whether it was school violence, a looming deficit, or a willful CEO spending money often without their approval, the failure of a proactive and decisive School Reform Commission was the biggest non-story of the year. This past year, they rubber stamped a host of contracts, met for hours behind closed doors on issues like school finances that ought to have been public, then failed to take decisive action while a budget deficit blew up under their watch (see below). When faced with controversies like the violence at South Philadelphia High School or minority contracting, they stood largely silent before hundreds of people at SRC meetings. One exception: The SRC initiated a task force to identify school failures in addressing black and Latino male achievement though it's unclear how their report will result in significant change. While some commissioners have indicated a need for improvement, as a whole its members seem unable or unwilling to assume their role as fiscal stewards and assure the public they'll provide essential oversight to the often frenetic decision-making in the District.

7. Executive salaries: Daily News columnist Phil Goldsmith made a big splash this summer by highlighting Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s $338,000 salary (not including perks and benefits), among the highest in the country. Salaries overall have ballooned at the District, with chiefs in the public relations, human resources, and legal departments all earning paychecks that rival the Mayor’s. The District’s claim that such salaries are “budget neutral” will have a harder time flying given the pending deficit.

6. West Philadelphia High School: West, once a school on the upswing, became a victim of a Renaissance process gone haywire and a superintendent’s wrath. The problems started when West was slated for outside turnaround over the protest of the principal, staff and community. Things got uglier when Ackerman ordered the Inspector General to investigate parents on the School Council for conflict of interest, threw the staff into upheaval, and yanked popular principal Saliyah Cruz. West experienced chaos this fall, with many parents and students laying the blame at the feet of District interference.

5. Renaissance schools: Philadelphia jumped onto the school turnaround bandwagon promoted by U.S. Secty. of Education Arne Duncan. The District identified its lowest performing schools through a complex performance index, then invited outside providers to convert them to charters serving the same students in the same buildings. The District also invested millions into its "Promise Academies," which are District-managed investments into low-performing schools. Promise Academies received new principals and teachers – most young and inexperienced – as well as new technology, extra hours of instruction, and enrichment activities. The approach raises questions about outsourcing our most troubled schools and whether the District can guide low-performing schools through a meaningful process of improvement.

4. Rising test scores: For the first time, at least half of Philadelphia students met or exceeded proficiency standards on statewide testing. The Governor, Mayor and District leaders herald the test scores as historic. While the 2010 results are significant, other indicators of academic progress are more sobering. The Nation's Report Card showed that fewer than one in five of Philadelphia’s fourth and eighth graders are proficient in reading and math on national tests – well below the national average – and the Fordham Institute ranked Pennsylvania near the bottom of the nation in terms of rigorous state testing.

3. The DEFICIT: A dogged media confirms that the District’s deficit next fiscal year will far exceed the $230+ million acknowledged by the Superintendent and could approach half a billion dollars. (Note: Former Superintendent Paul Vallas was raked over the coals for a $73 million deficit in 2007). Both the Mayor and Ackerman held a press conference to scold the media for "speculating" about the numbers. In most camps speculating about the budget is usually called sound financial planning, isn’t it?

2. South Philadelphia High School: A year ago dozens of Asian immigrant youth won international attention when they boycotted South Philadelphia High School to draw attention to prolonged racial violence against them. Earlier this month, the U.S. Dept. of Justice charged that the District remained "deliberately indifferent" to "severe and pervasive harassment" which constituted "unlawful discrimination against Asian students based on race, color, and/or national origin at South Philadelphia High School." The Justice Department and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission issued groundbreaking agreements that set a national standard on how to address racial bias and harassment in schools. A new principal has calmed the school and made clear the difference between a quality leader and a poor one. At the center of it all stood a resilient group of immigrant students, who summed it up best:

“We will always remember December 3, [2009], but we refuse to be defined by that day. A year ago we came to you as victims. Today we come to you as youth activists, as organizers and leaders who have shown the power to make change.”

1. Arlene Ackerman: Yes, the superintendent is my pick for the number one story of the year – for becoming the news all the time. In addition to orchestrating the District’s disastrous response to civil rights violations at South Philadelphia High School, she oversaw a reverse turnaround at a once-stabilized West Philadelphia High; suspended suspected whistleblowers in a contracting dispute; fired and demoted a host of underlings for decisions that turned sour; and won national awards and impressive displays of public support. Her style and personality transcended almost any issue and demanded that every controversy become a personal referendum on her. Last February, a small group of parent supporters held up signs that seemed to embody the District's approach: “It’s Dr. Ackerman’s way or no way.”

With a paralyzing budget deficit looming and school closings on the horizon, education – and Arlene Ackerman – promise to stay at the top of the news agenda in 2011.

Upheaval for schools: Commissioner Heidi Ramirez to step down

Was the Commission’s most vocal member forced out for asking too many questions?

Update 7 p.m.: The Notebook reports that Gov. Rendell has confirmed that he has received a name from Sen. Pileggi for an appointment to the SRC. The Gov. professed not to know the political affiliation of the individual.

Update 6:15 p.m.: With tears in her eyes, Heidi Ramirez announced her resignation from the SRC stating that her vision was now "inconsistent" with that of the District. After the announcement, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman notably waited to be the last one to stand for Dr. Ramirez' ovation and rolled her eyes before standing.

Sources inside and outside the School District have informed me that School Reform Commissioner Heidi Ramirez will announce her intention to resign from the SRC. The announcement is expected this afternoon when the SRC convenes.

The announcement follows months of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s public critiques and complaints of Dr. Ramirez’ inquiries into areas such as the budget and contracts. It also follows Gov. Rendell’s decision in the spring to put Ramirez’s re-nomination in limbo and open angling by Harrisburg legislators to get Republican representation on the SRC. One can only guess that Dr. Ramirez, whom Governor Rendell once praised as "the most qualified" member of the SRC for her education background, got no backing from state or city officials.

Which leads you to wonder: Was the Commission’s most vocal member – arguably its most expert and engaged member – forced out for asking too many questions and expecting a modicum of accountability from District leadership? If so, what does that mean for the future of our schools and $3 billion of public money. If asking questions isn’t the job of an oversight body, then what is?

Read the full story at the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

Robert Archie's first test

Every research report with the exception of the ones paid for by EMOs have come to the same conclusion, EMOs do not create a sense of competition and do not outperform publicly run schools.
As we read recently on this board (Edison Schools: Another cautionary lesson from Baltimore) the leading EMO has lost more schools and is virtually dependent on Philadelphia for its existence. Nationally the EMO and voucher movement is about dead and even the Wall Street Journal admits the results of these movement have not lived up to their promise. The journal writes, "Research on the academic impact of vouchers is mixed and not dramatic enough to garner broad public acceptance."
Mr. Archie, who today will be nominated to head the School Reform Commission, will chair a commission which has to decide whether or not to continue this expensive and failed experiment. He sits on the board of an EMO.

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