Two members of the embattled School Reform Commission are leaving their posts. Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. resigned Monday and Johnny Irizarry was expected to follow suit.
“I am resigning as chairman and as a member of the School Reform Commission, a very distinguished and hard working body of volunteers, effective immediately,” Archie, who is also a Tribune board member, said in a statement.
Irizarry confirmed that he would be stepping down but declined to comment before an announcement by Mayor Michael Nutter.
Archie, along with state Rep. Dwight Evans, is the subject of an investigation by the city’s integrity office as Mayor Michael Nutter seeks to find out exactly what happened during the Philadelphia School District’s attempt to turn Martin Luther King High School into a charter school.
Nutter, who appointed both men in March 2009, ordered the investigation into Archie in April. Though he promised a report “as soon as possible,” the city has not yet released its findings.
He was expected to make a public statement Monday afternoon.
Resignations come amid tumultuous year for Phila. School District
Two members of the embattled School Reform Commission have resigned: Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. and Johnny Irizarry stepped down Monday.
“I very much appreciate the service of Bob Archie and Johnny Irizarry through very difficult and challenging times,” said Mayor Michael Nutter in a statement released Monday afternoon. “During their watch, students continue to show improved test scores and the graduation rate has improved.”
Nutter’s statements came after a tense day with a number of rumors swirling around the future of the SRC.
Archie issued his resignation shortly before noon.
“I am resigning as chairman and as a member of the School Reform Commission, a very distinguished and hard-working body of volunteers, effective immediately,” Archie, who is also a Tribune board member, said in a statement.
Speaking through spokesman Thomas Gailey, with Gailey Murray Communications, Archie declined to talk about the matter, saying that he would not be making any public comments. For a while, Archie appeared poised to speak, but after agreeing to meet with the Tribune he eventually declined, citing an overwhelming number of requests for interviews and worries about the propriety of talking only to a reporter from the publication where he served on the board.
Irizarry, in a hurried telephone conversation shortly thereafter, confirmed that he would be stepping down, but declined to comment further.
Archie said he had arrived at his decision after taking with Nutter “over the last several months,” adding: “The mayor and I have also had recent conversations involving the future management structure of the public school system.”
A spokesman for the mayor said Nutter had not asked either man to resign.
Nutter did say in his statement that he would be naming replacements for Archie and Irizarry “very shortly.”
A source close to the District said that Nutter’s third SRC appointment, Denise Armbrister, has been asked to “keep a letter of resignation in her pocket.”
The SRC has been under growing pressure since earlier this year.
Archie, along with state Rep. Dwight Evans, is the subject of an investigation by the city’s integrity office as Nutter seeks to find out exactly what happened during the Philadelphia School District’s attempt to turn Martin Luther King High School into a charter school.
Evans and Archie met behind closed doors.
Nutter, who appointed both Archie and Irizarry in March 2009, ordered the investigation into Archie, Evans and Martin Luther King High in April. Though he promised a report “as soon as possible,” the city has not yet released its findings.
The unexpected resignations follow that of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who stepped down last month. Since leaving, Ackerman has been talking —a lot — pulling back the curtain on what she contends are a number of shady deals by the SRC.
Added to that, Archie was intimately involved in the buyout of Ackerman’s contract, which has fired up critics throughout the School District and sparked a state investigation.
The deal, which gave Ackerman nearly $1 million to leave the District, increased public scrutiny of the SRC, and Archie in particular. He served on the board of the educational non-profit Children’s First Fund, through which the money to pay Ackerman was supposed to flow. But, the arrangement fell apart in the wake of a public outcry over the fact that donations to fund Ackerman’s exit would be kept secret, leaving the District on the hook for a package totaling $980,000.
The former superintendent received the cash portion of that, $905,000, on Sept. 14.
Ackerman continues to speak to the press. Just Monday, she was featured in a story in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, in which she called on Nutter to release the results of that city investigation and continued to criticize Evans for his role in the MLK High scandal.
She has been far more circumspect about Archie, who was long seen as one of her more ardent supporters. He very consistently voiced his approval of her despite a growing outcry from critics calling for her removal.
“She’s an excellent educator,” he said, in an interview shortly after her departure. “If you look at her record over my two year tenure, she did an excellent job. I have no reservations about saying that.”
As unexpected as Archie’s resignation was, Irizarry’s was even more of a surprise.
Known as a commissioner who asked many thoughtful questions, Irizarry appeared to have avoided any hint of impropriety during his tenure.
He was perhaps best known for his involvement in the African-American and Latino Male Dropout Taskforce.
The two resignations leave three holes on the five-member SRC.
Earlier this year, Commissioner David Girard-DiCarlo resigned after serving little more than a year on the board. Pedro A. Ramos, a former city managing director and one-time member of the school board, has been recommended by Gov. Tom Corbett to fill the vacancy. He is waiting approval by the state Senate.
Thomas Knudsen to act as superintendent, finance chief
The Philadelphia School District — on the heels of announcing last week that it has established a new superintendent search team — made a major announcement regarding its organizational structure and finances.
The School Reform Commission meeting Thursday night revealed the district will have to cut an additional $61 million by June, and named a new “chief recovery officer” to assist in its struggling financial state.
The SRC named Thomas Knudsen, the turnaround expert who led the Philadelphia Gas Works to fiscal sanity, as chief recovery officer, a position which will function as both superintendent and chief financial officer. Leroy Nunery, the former interim superintendent, and Michael Masch, the former chief financial officer, will both continue to work for the district, but in diminished roles.
It was also revealed Thursday that the district will be withholding promised raises from blue collar workers who were scheduled to see increases in their salaries starting this week.
Capping the school district’s tumultuous last few weeks was the civil lawsuit filed by former district executive John L. Byars. Byars’ suit alleges he was made the scapegoat when critics decried a no-bid contract awarded to minority firm, IBS Communications Inc. Byars alleges that former superintendent Arlene Ackerman not only steered IBS to the contract, but signed off on the $7.5 million plan, even though there were plans to award that contract to the Newton, Bucks County-based firm Security & Data Technologies.
Byars filed his suit Jan. 11, and named acting school superintendent Leroy D. Nunery II, Ackerman, the SRC, the School District of Philadelphia, Robert Archie Jr., Denise McGregor Armbrister, Johnny Irizarry, Estelle G. Matthews, Jamilah Fraser and Shana Kemp as defendants.
There are other issues swirling around the district as well.
Commissioner Feather Houstoun displayed a presentation at Thursday’s meeting that she called “budget stress arithmetic” to comment on the state of the district’s finances, and the appointment of a permanent superintendent search team. Joseph Dworetzky, who is also named in the suit, has been appointed a member of the search team.
“We’re not as well off as we were three months ago,” Houstoun told the audience. “We are losing ground for a number of reasons.”
The ghosts of administrations’ past continue to haunt the Philadelphia School District, as former District executive John L. Byars filed a civil suit against the District over his December 2010 firing.
Such a move couldn’t come at a worse time from the District’s standpoint, as it is in the midst of searching for a new superintendent and still dealing with the drawn-out process of closing multiple ineffective or obsolete schools.
In his suit, Byars alleges that he was made the scapegoat when news broke of the District’s decision to award a $7.5 million, no-bid contract to minority communications firm IBS Communications, Inc. He alleges that former superintendent Arlene Ackerman was the force behind the contract going to IBS instead of the Bucks County-based Security & Data Technologies firm, and believes that the ensuing firestorm cost Byars his job.
The suit, filed last Wednesday in the Pennsylvania Eastern District Court, names Ackerman, Leroy D. Nunery II, Robert Archie Jr., Denise McGregor Armbrister, Joseph Dworetzky, Johnny Irizarry, Estelle G. Mathews, Jamilah Fraser, Shana Kemp, the School Reform Commission and the School District of Philadelphia as defendants.
Interestingly, along with being named in the suit, Dworetzky was recently appointed as a member of the SRC’s search team for a new superintendent; Nunery is currently serving as the interim school superintendent.
The no-bid contract to provide video surveillance and other technical support that was awarded to IBS seemed murky from the outset. Byars alleges that Ackerman had a personal relationship with IBS’ president; previously, Ackerman admitted that she directed that the firm be included in a much smaller contract to install cameras at South Philadelphia High School.
School district spokesman Fernando Gallard declined comment; Ackerman is now living and working in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she serves as CEO and president of the Ackerman Education Strategies Group.
Bu this wouldn’t be the first time Ackerman has faced a lawsuit in her position as school chief.
In a case with stunning similarities, Ackerman, while serving as superintendent of the San Francisco School District, she was named in a lawsuit for illegal contracts. Ackerman received a payout of more than of $375,000 as part of her settlement package with the SFSD — only to apply for unemployment compensation after receiving the settlement. Ackerman also sued the SFSD for $172,000 for what she said were unpaid bonuses; Ackerman eventually dropped that lawsuit.
According to Byars’ suit, when word leaked in November of 2010 that various media outlets were preparing an exposé on the District’s contract with IBS, Ackerman, Nunery and at least two other school officials devised the plan that led to Byars eventual ouster. Byars, along with five other school officials, were suspended with pay in late 2010.
After an adversarial summer that left the School Reform Commission and the office of the superintendent in a state of upheaval, conversation is breaking out across the city with the goal of moving forward and leaving the ruins behind.
This was the tone struck Tuesday night at a public forum discussion of governance and the School District of Philadelphia. Presented by Public Citizens for Children and Youth at the United Way building, the panel, moderated by recently retired Philadelphia Daily News columnist Elmer Smith, took on issues such as whether or not SRC members should be paid, whether an elected board works better than the SRC, the lack of succession planning in leadership positions and other issues.
SRC critic Helen Gym, founder of Parents United for Public Education, believes that the SRC, which oversees the third largest budget (approximately $3 billion), should be a full-time job.
“I don’t think that five people who have separate jobs and think they are volunteering as an appointment can really do the job that is necessary,” Gym flatly stated. “I just don’t think it’s a volunteer job. You have the third largest budget in the state and you are just going to hand it over to a group of volunteers who don’t have it on their agenda as a full-time job? I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”
Sandra Dungee-Glenn, president and chief executive officer of American Cities Foundation, was the former chair of the SRC. She also served on the Board of Education before it was replaced by the SRC in 2001 in response to the school district’s financial problems.
Dungee-Glenn believes that the chair should take a salary; the other four members, she says, should not.
“You are sitting in that seat and it’s hard for anyone; it’s tough,” Dungee-Glenn said. “For the chair to do it well you need to be devoted to it full time. You are not only the leading voice but you are also the one responsible for setting the agenda — you’re the face of the city and the school district. So, yes, the chair should be a full-time position.”
The district is still trying to close a budget gap that was as high as $680 million. There have been mass layoffs, a damning report out of the mayor’s office condemning the actions of former SRC boss Robert L. Archie and state Rep. Dwight Evans, the buyout of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the subsequent resignations of Archie and fellow board member Johnny Irizarry.
For Dungee-Glenn, how those charged with leading the school district arrive there — via appointment or election — is more important is that they know there job when they get there.
“How they get there is not really important,” she said. “Whether elected or appointed, most school board members are very poorly prepared for what we are asked to do — that’s really the problem.”
Keith Lomax, a 2011 Southern High graduate, expressed concerns that the SRC didn’t operate in the best interest of Philadelphians, mostly because the governor has more appointments than the mayor.
“It should have had more people from Philadelphia who are familiar with what goes on in Philly,” Lomax, headed for the army, said.
For Maurice Jones, a member of the Philadelphia Student Union and the West Philadelphia Coalition of Neighborhood Schools, governance at the school district is an amorphous group of acronyms that seem out of touch with parents and the students.
“From the perspective of a parent,” Jones, the home and school president of Lea Elementary, said, “I just feel like I haven’t been able to interact with the whole process because my voice is never heard. People get nominated for positions and there is no interaction. They come and they go and during that process the parents, who speak for children, don’t have a say. When they are gone the parent is still left standing and wondering when I’m going to get a say. When do we get an opportunity to have a say?”
Samuel Reed, a representative for the for the Teachers’ Institute of Philadelphia, believes that too often governance is discussed from the top down, the result being that the grass roots people are ignored and neglected.
“We all need to be involved to have a better, more responsive school district,” Reed said. “Therefore you should just be concerned about who is in charge and running the big operation. Let’s take care of the foundation at the school level, then we can approach what we need to do at the top. If you have a poor foundation but good governance at the top, what are you going to have? The foundation hasn’t been addressed and as a result the building is going to crumble.”
Smith led the discussion into a conversation about succession planning; something the school district has come under criticism for, particularly in wake of yet another national search to fill the vacant superintendent’s seat. Smith asked whether constantly bringing in people with a “new vision” for the school district was a good idea.
“I get nervous whenever I hear people talking about that,” said former Trenton Public Schools principal and Penn Professor James H. Lytle said. “One of Philadelphia’s biggest problems is that it hasn’t had a local superintendent since the mid 1990s.”
A professor of Foundations and Practices in education, Lytle added, “One of the first things you teach is leadership so that you don’t have to go fishing all over the countryside every time we need a new leader. We have not done a good job of this at any level.”
Armbrister resigns, Corbett names Houstoun replacement
Denise McGregor Armbrister became the third member of the School Reform Commission to resign within a month, her resignation Wednesday coming on the heels of the departures of Chairman Robert L. Archie and Johnny Irizarry.
Not long after the ink on her resignation had dried, Gov. Tom Corbett moved to fill the vacancy with Thursday’s nomination of Feather O’Connor Houstoun.
“Feather Houstoun’s experience and depth of knowledge in public service will be a tremendous asset to help lead Philadelphia’s educational community,” Corbett said. “She understands many of the needs and challenges facing the children who attend our state’s largest public school system, and her experience running large public systems will bring a special expertise to the SRC.”
In June, Corbett named former City Solicitor Pedro Ramos as his choice to replace Archie as SRC chair.
However, Ramos is still awaiting state Senate confirmation. It is believed that Houstoun and Ramos will go through their state Senate confirmation hearings simultaneously to expedite the reformation of the SRC with its full complement of five members.
Earlier this month, Mayor Michael Nutter appointed Rutgers University-Camden Chancellor Wendell Pritchett to the SRC. He followed that up with the appointment of arts ambassador Lorene Carey. Joseph Dworetzky, whose term expires in 2014, is a gubernatorial appointment and now the longest tenured member of the Commission. He has been a member of the SRC for two years.
All of Armbrister’s children have been educated in the Philadelphia public schools, and she still has a daughter in the 11th grade in the district. In a recent phone conversation, Armbrister, who had already served four years on the SRC and would have seen her term expire in January, said she wanted to move out of the way so the governor could make an appointment and therefore move the Senate hearing ahead more quickly.
“I’m hoping this will expedite the process, that a fifth commission member will be named and the confirmation process can quickly begin,” Armbrister said. “It is complex and it is time-consuming. It is a lot of work.”
As priorities for the SRC, Armbrister mentioned the continued efforts to close the $680 million budget gap that has reduced the number of workers at headquarters by 50 percent and the number of employees district-wide by 30 percent. She touched on the huge undertaking that is the facilities master plan, a key component of the school district’s five-year strategic plan, Imagine 2014.
She also said that while the job of an SRC member is “extremely challenging work,” she did not suggest, as some have, that it should be a paid position.
“I want to say that I felt honored and humbled to take on this responsibility,” Armbrister, speaking of her tenure, said. “The work of the SRC is incredibly honorable work that, I assure you, none of the people whom I worked with took the responsibilities lightly. However, I don’t think that it should be a paid position.
“I owe a great deal of gratitude to my fellow commissioners,” Armbrister continued. “Hopefully the new and reconstituted commission can be put in place quickly and the SRC can go about the very crucial job of providing the children in the school district the best possible education. Nothing is more important than that. Nothing.”
“Feather Houstoun is one of Philadelphia’s most dedicated and accomplished public servants, and her appointment will help the SRC move forward with its difficult and critical work,” Nutter said. “While serving at the William Penn Foundation, Feather left an undeniably positive and lasting impact on the entire Philadelphia region. As a SRC member, she would be able to bring her expertise and passion to improving the lives of Philadelphia’s students.
“We look forward to the Pennsylvania Senate taking up the nominations for Pedro Ramos and Feather Houstoun,” she said. “Their quick confirmations will allow the new SRC to get on with their important work of identifying the next superintendent of the district and managing through complex budget and facilities issues.”
Houstoun, 65, is president of the William Penn Foundation. She has been the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare under Gov. Tom Ridge; worked as the chief financial officer for SEPTA; and served as treasurer of the state of New Jersey.
With three months remaining in her term, Denise McGregor Armbrister has resigned from her post on the Philadelphia School Reform Commission.
A gubernatorial appointment, Armbrister, appointed in 2008 by Governor Ed Rendell, said she was stepping down early in hopes that a new and fully-complemented commission could be appointed as soon as possible. With Commonwealth appointments – of which there are three – there must be a vacancy before the state Senate confirmation process can commence. When she was appointed in 2008 her confirmation took almost five months.
“I’m hoping this will expedite the process, that a fifth commission member will be named and the confirmation process can quickly begin,” Armbrister said. “It is complex and it is time consuming, it is a lot of work.
“I want to say that I felt honored and humbled to take on this responsibility,” Armbrister, speaking of her tenure, continued “I owe a great deal of gratitude to my fellow commissioners. Hopefully the new and reconstituted commission can be put in place and the SRC can go about the very crucial job of providing the children in the school district the best possible education.”
It has been a time of huge changes within the SRC. Last month former Chairman Robert L. Archie and Johnny Irizarry both resigned. A little over a week ago, Mayor Michael Nutter appointed Lorene Cary to the SRC. And in Sept., Nutter also named Rutgers University-Camden Chancellor Wendell Pritchett to the SRC.
Gov. Tom Corbett named former City Solicitor Pedro Ramos as his choice to replace Archie as the SRC chair. However, Ramos is still awaiting state Senate confirmation. Some have speculated, Ramos included, that he might not be confirmed until Thanksgiving.
Ramos was president of the city's old Board of Education when it was replaced by the SRC in 2001. He is believed to be a strong advocate for Philadelphia’s schoolchildren. Joseph Dworetzky, whose term expires in 2014, is a gubernatorial appointment.
Armbrister rattled off the multiple tasks awaiting the SRC.
“The most important thing is that they continue the upward trajectory in achievement in the classroom,” Armbrister said. "They’ve got the facilities master plan on the table. And there has been success with Imagine 2014. That’s just to name a few.”