In recent months, a number of adjectives have fastened themselves to Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman: aloof, arrogant, ineffectual. It would have been inconceivable, even three weeks ago, to use terms like “decisive,” “bold” or “swift” to describe her as she army-crawls toward her third year on the job. Then came a July 29 Daily News column, in which Phil Goldsmith wrote that she recently “took a 4 percent [raise] that pushed her annual salary up by $13,000 to $338,000”—despite the “fiscal tsunami” looming in the district’s near future.
With her bloated wage—higher than that of our mayor and our governor—out in the open, Ackerman leapt to action. Within days, she had blocked payroll system access to all but a few district workers; according to the Daily News, the number of employees with access to the numbers dropped from 300 to two. The City Controller’s Office, which monitors budgets and salaries, was likewise shut out. “I don’t believe they can do that,” said Controller Alan Butkovitz.
But they did. Or rather, she did, with a speed and authority that seemed unusual given her track record. After all, Ackerman’s reputation here was made with her response to December’s racial violence at South Philadelphia High School—a response marked by sloth, fumbling and a horribly tin ear. She attempted, unsuccessfully, to distribute the blame with her now-infamous “It’s Everybody’s Problem” Inquirer op-ed; nine months on, she has never acknowledged error. Her apologists might say that the incident is part of the past, and that we should learn to leave it there. Unfortunately, though, it cannot be so easily tucked away. The episode must be included in any discussion about the superintendent; it was a disastrous defining moment—the work of a person who either cares too much about image or who is incapable of leading.
Her decision to hide her salary and others’ is perplexing; the figures had already been reported. Her reaction could only bring more headlines, outrage and calls for her ouster.
A major difference between her current self-inflicted wound and the previous one is speed. Whereas Ackerman took a full week to address the chaos at South Philadelphia—whereupon she downplayed the attacks’ racial motivation, aimed blame at the victims and ignored staff shortcomings—her response to Goldsmith’s editorial came in a mere three days. This might not seem relevant until you consider what, in each case, was at stake: When Asian students were beaten, she dawdled. When her pay was exposed, she jumped from her seat.
Philadelphia is now burdened with a superintendent who exacerbates problems in a district that is plagued by them. The dropout rate hovers at 30 percent; violence and decay are facts of life; reading and math scores, while rising, lag far behind those of the rest of the state. And while Ackerman prides herself on her relationship with students and parents—“Her main education strategy,” Philadelphia magazine wrote in December, “is to focus extra resources on low-performing schools, struggling kids and their families”—she has shown comparable zeal, and drained valuable energy, in her efforts at damage control. “The schools, particularly here, need an ambassador,” the Committee of Seventy’s Zack Stalberg told the magazine. “[Ackerman] needs to convince people the district is still worth investing in.”
Yet what we’re investing in now is a raft of swollen salaries. In May, Ackerman received a dubious $65,000 bonus, pushing her perk-filled earnings past a half-million dollars. Further, the district’s chief financial officer, deputy superintendent and general counsel each earn more than Nutter and Rendell, at $226,000, $230,000 and $190,000, respectively. In a city where 70 percent of students live in poverty, school administrators are raking it in. As Goldsmith wrote in his column, “the superintendent and the School Reform Commission seem to be tone-deaf about what’s going on in the rest of the city, as taxpayers face higher taxes, reduced services, lower household earnings and, in some cases, unemployment.” Whether Ackerman is reacting too quickly or too slowly, “tone-deaf” seems an adjective that will always reliably stick.