Arlene Ackerman & the Case of the Secret Salaries

By Jacob Lambert
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 13 | Posted Aug. 17, 2010

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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.

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Comments 1 - 13 of 13

2. K.Rock said... on Aug 18, 2010 at 11:15AM

“It's truly sickening how much she makes for her apparent lack of work.”

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3. Ms. Chips said... on Aug 18, 2010 at 05:36PM

“There are lots more money questions hanging:
1. What is the value of Queen Arlene's percs? Car & driver is standard, but what else? Does she get a housing allowance?
2. What benefits do SRC members get? Cars? assistants?
3. Among administrators, what is the value of housing allowances & rental cars?
4. How many (and again, at what cost) principals receive housing & auto allowances above their salaries?
5. What was the bidding process (I don't believe there was any at all) for the new curricula?
And much more fiscal obscurity. Anyone care?”

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4. shotime369 said... on Aug 19, 2010 at 10:24AM

“Why should this surprise anyone? Look at the bankers and stock brokers who committed felonies yet walked away withn fortunes stolen from schmucks like us with no consequences. Except for the effects they had on schmucks like us such as inability to get credit, increased interest rates to try to recoup the money lost, and increased taxes. Why should it stop when there seems to be no cosequences for their actions? I'm not advocating public hangings, but shouldn't that money be recouped and returned to the treasuries. I'm not going to take it anymore.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Aug 23, 2010 at 11:28AM

“Employees are reprimanded, suspended or fired for minor administrative offenses under the guidelines set by the school district. The union seems just as scared of the superintendent as the employees of losing their jobs for disciplinary write ups from their principals. Is it time for the ones at the bottom of the hill, to move out of the way of the boulder that starts at the top?”

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6. jebbie said... on Dec 6, 2010 at 02:42PM

“I feel very sorry for you, Philly. you took on the queen carpetbagger that swindled us out of about a half-million $$$. yet, she's still there and still encouraging her high-handed imperial ways. tough luck, who amongst you has the stones to fire that parasite and do something decent for your school kids. oh yeah, I hear Michelle Rhee needs a job ...”

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7. Thomas Ball said... on Dec 18, 2010 at 11:20AM

“Is she really the only person that is capable of running the phila. school district check out her time in san Francisco , in my opinion she is racist , A statement should be made in the city of Philadelphia , racism by any public servant should not be condoned , Idea , " lets replace Arlene Ackerman with a Oriental American administrator "”

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8. sf teacher said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 11:52PM

“Blame goes to whoever hired her and failed to check out, or chose to ignore how she screwed up and robbed SF prior to coming to Philly.”

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9. Anonymous said... on Apr 4, 2011 at 10:18AM

“She needs to go!!!!!!!!!!! She an incompetent imbecile how do these people get these high paying positions??? She's not going to do crap for the school district , and the longer she's here the worst it's going to get. She's more concerned about her wardrobe than about what's going on in our city's schools!!!!!!”

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10. 1099 SDP said... on Apr 5, 2011 at 11:18PM

“This b**** got some issue`s the SDP was doing fine until she came along now 50% of SDP staff about to lose thier job over something stupid she did. Im glad I left and Im never returning until she get kick out of power who ever hired her is a epic fail I cant believe I pay taxes for this bullsh!t”

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11. Insider said... on Apr 7, 2011 at 07:06AM

“This is truly sad for the children, teachers, and taxpayers of Philadelphia. Problems in the SDP are almost hopeless to solve, which makes it understandable for the superintendent to have difficulties. The job is hard enough. This helps how??? I am so disappointed in the city of Philadelphia, and its staff in powerful leadership positions.”

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12. Anonymous said... on Jun 24, 2011 at 06:35PM

“Queen Ackerman is a true parasite. Why is she being allowed to behave so arrogantly. She can't run a district, and probably can't teach or run a school. While there are African Americans out there who earned their incomes based on there merit, skills and abilities, Ackerman seems like one who was promoted based on her being black.”

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13. Tim said... on Nov 30, 2011 at 04:32PM

“t should be required ALL public servent saleries be posted in the news paper ona quarterly basis...

All of us that vote are at fault...

Come on fix it...”


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