City looking into former superintendent’s claim she was ‘advised’ to change her charter decision
Former Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is no longer the central figure charged with educating the more than 155,000 students in the district, but her influence continues to run far and wide in the city.
Almost a month after she and the School Reform Commission agreed on her contract buyout, Ackerman has shifted attention to another unseemly School District situation — the Martin Luther King charter fiasco.
Specifically, Ackerman told The Notebook.org, a blog that covers the Philadelphia public schools, that Mayor Michael Nutter already has the results of an investigation into the controversy. It was back in April that Nutter announced an investigation into the situation headed by Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman.
“I think it’s tragic and unconscionable, that the story hasn’t been told yet,” Ackerman told the Notebook earlier this week.
According to the office of the mayor, that day is coming within the next two weeks, maybe less. Until that time, though, Ackerman and others will have to wait a little bit longer.
“The report from the chief integrity officer to the mayor will be released shortly,” mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald said. “It would be premature to talk about anything particular to that whole issue at this point.”
With the resignation on Monday of School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie, Committee of Seventy President Zack Stalberg says that the public is due an answer now.
“It is my understanding that the Markman report is in [the mayor’s] hands, and I think it should be released,” said the president of the watchdog organization. “Not releasing it sends a bad message on top of the other bad messages that have already been sent. The decision of who is going to be the operator of Martin Luther King High School has been closely watched since Easter. It would clear up at least one of the clouds hanging over the school district if the mayor released the report.”
Archie’s resignation, Stalberg says, just raises more questions begging to be answered.
“Now that Archie has resigned, the public has the right to know whether or not the findings of the report had anything to do with his resignation.”
At the core of the controversy was the battle between Foundations, Inc., an organization with which state Rep. Dwight Evans has deep ties, and Mosaica Education out of Atlanta. It was reported last April that Evans — in a closed-door meeting, allegedly convinced Mosaica to back out of the five-year, $12 million contract it had been awarded so that Foundations could have it.
While she gives no specifics, Ackerman painted a picture of arm-twisting and political backroom deals being made that superseded the wants, needs and desires of the parents and children of Martin Luther King High.
Of that situation, Ackerman told The Notebook that she felt pressured on more than one occasion to endorse Foundations, Inc. over Mosaica. She added that she “was told by someone that if I didn’t get my mind right about this Foundations situation, that something would be leaked about my finances.”
Not long after she was allegedly given this directive, Fox29 News aired a report that showed she owed more $20,000 in back taxes. Ackerman’s tax attorney works at Duane Morris LLP. Archie is also a partner at Duane Morris, and a close associate of Evans.
The SRC voted to award Mosaica — which had been the choice of an advisory panel of King parents and community leaders — the contract on March 16. Scant hours later, Archie, who said he was acting in his official capacity, called a meeting of all parties despite his obvious conflict of interest — Duane Morris had represented Foundations before.
Shortly after Archie’s role became public, Foundations withdrew its bid for the contract. A long-suffering school that has struggled academically, King today is run by the school district as a Promise Academy.
At the time the decision was made, Ackerman appeared neutral on the issue. Now it appears that her support was for Mosaica all along, and she wants the story told.
“I think the public needs to know exactly what happened so that this won’t happen again,” Ackerman said.
When Nutter launched the investigation into the King controversy, he spoke in urgent terms of getting to the bottom of the situation. However, in the days, weeks and now months that have passed — that sense of urgency has waned.
Meanwhile, the SRC is still shrouded in mystery. When the SRC bought out Ackerman’s contract at $905,000, $405,000 came from anonymous donors. The privacy of those anonymous donors stirred a furor in the city that eventually the public donors reneged on the money, leaving the school district — and taxpayers — to foot the bill.
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.
As every living soul in Philadelphia has no doubt heard by now, Dr. Arlene Ackerman, former school district CEO, has applied for unemployment compensation. In fact, like the Kennedy assassination, you can probably say exactly where you were and what you were doing when you got the news.
The blogosphere crackled to life immediately, and talk radio call-in lines lit up with all the pent-up outrage and vitriol from folks who haven’t had an Ackerman sighting in months. The comments section of philly.com and other local news outlets were soon overflowing with renewed hatred for a woman who defied the age old code of crooks everywhere: “Take the money and run.”
For centuries, victims of robbery, theft, or fraud could at least count on their predator’s sticking to this code, and being long gone when the robbery was discovered. No self-respecting crook would rob the contents of your house, then park the getaway truck in your driveway and sit there waiting for you to come home.
By agreeing to fork over the queenly sum of nearly a million bucks in exit money, I’m sure the folks over at the School District — not to mention City Hall — were just hoping Ackerman would, well, exit.
Nope, not Arlene. She’ll take the money, thank you, but she’s not going anywhere.
For the record, I am not outraged by Dr.Ackerman’s application for unemployment compensation. I am neither angry nor filled with righteous indignation. After all, it’s a tough economy out there, and with hundreds of applicants for every opening, it might take her a while to find a job making the same money for doing the same thing.
I am, I have to admit, in awe of her sheer audacity.
Call it guts, chutzpah, temerity, cojones, nerve, stones — call it what you will, she has it in spades. I have never seen the equivalent in 20-plus years of covering politics and politicians. The woman truly and genuinely has no shame. None at all. In politics, though, this can prove a definite advantage.
To explore this, let’s backtrack a bit. The truth is, none of my above robbery or fraud metaphors are quite fair to Ackerman, and for that I may owe her, and will freely offer, an apology. Because it’s one thing to rob or swindle taxpayers out of their money, but we must remember that every dime Dr. Ackerman gets from the District, and by extension, from us, is 100 percent legal and above board — in fact, it was pre-negotiated — which, if anything, is a further testament to her skills.
She was able to negotiate, while under great public and private pressure to resign, a settlement package that not only paid her handsomely to step down, but also anticipated her application for unemployment compensation and prohibited the District from objecting to it.
I don’t care who you are, that’s flat-out brilliant. That’s old school stuff right there. We are clearly in the presence of greatness.
This should be a textbook case, studied and scrutinized by all petty politicians and assorted get-over artists for years to come. The Ricky Marianos, Vinny Fumos and Corey Kemps of the world have finally been shown up as the bumbling fools and rank amateurs they are. Stand aside, and bow in reverence to a true master of the craft.
Not only does she get the wheelbarrow full of public money without breaking any laws or going to prison, she gets to stand there, and without the slightest hint of remorse, stick her hand back out for more. And in return, gets more.
To Dr. Ackerman: Please accept my heartfelt and most humble apology. More than once when you were at the District, I used this column space to question your skill at political gamesmanship. The evidence made it appear as though you were in over your head, and perhaps being used as a patsy by those in city government with superior political acumen.
I was wrong — dead wrong. I see that now.
You, madam, are Bruce Lee. You are a Jedi master. You are Muhammad Ali and the rest of us are a Rope-a-Doped George Foreman. You laid in wait against the ropes, allowing your political enemies, and the media, to punch themselves out wailing away at a phantom. Then you struck with a ferocity no one expected.
I mean, really. Unemployment compensation? That’s as good as it gets. My hat is off to you ma’am, and thank you for the lesson.
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.
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.
Barely a week has passed since the School Reform Commission publicized its controversial, “Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools,” and charter school leaders are letting it be known they will fight any plan that attacks per-pupil funding or forces charters schools to adopt an enrollment cap.
Specifically, charter school educators are taking umbrage with the SRC’s plan to slash $149 million from charter school funding, which represents a whopping seven percent drop in per-pupil funding. The plan also calls for a three-year freeze on per-pupil payments, and finally, the enforcement of a mutually agreed upon growth schedule. SRC officials believe it can balance its budget in five years if these and other cuts are implemented.
“In my view, the [budget] issue should not be balanced on the backs of charter schools. The reality is, I don’t go along with that, and it’s not acceptable,” said state Representative Dwight Evans, who was among the leaders of the charter school movement nearly two decades ago, when he introduced legislation supporting the charter model. “First, let’s be clear, this is supposed to be about kids and parents, and there’s nothing in the law that gives the SRC the legal ability to [arbitrarily reduce payments]. There is nothing in the act, one way or the other, for the district to do this.”
Evans was referring to the Act 22 Charter School Legislation of 1997, and most charter proponents point to subsection 17-1723 (d), which states that, “enrollment of students in a charter school or cyber charter school shall not be subject to a cap or otherwise limited to any past or future action of a board of school directors … or any other authority, unless agreed to by the charter school or cyber charter school as part of a written charter.”
“We fought 15 years to get that law passed; 15 years we fought for the parents to have options, and we won’t let the school district mess with the kids,” Evans said, crediting longtime educator and attorney Dr. Walter D. Palmer as being an early leading protagonist of the cause. “The school district has its own ineptness, but we will not let them do this.
“Politically, they must not think of bringing this through Harrisburg, because I wouldn’t support it,” Evans said.
Palmer, at the forefront of the charter issue for almost three decades and who served as major supporter of the mid-’90s legislation, recently took the school district to court over the district’s attempts to cap enrollment at his successful Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School. According to Palmer, the school district has unfairly targeted the charter school system while ignoring both the achievements and gains made by the charters — and the district’s own mismanagement of resources and funds.
“The district has been repressive to charter schools for at least ten years,” Palmer said, placing much of the blame of the perceived public school — charter school friction at the feet of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman and former SRC chairman Robert Archie. “All of this is really an all-out assault on the charter school movement, but [the SRC] cannot circumvent the court.”
Palmer has defied the SRC’s cap measure by continuing to accept students, and billing the state directly. Twice, Palmer said, the courts have agreed with him, and ruled the district must reimburse Leadership Learning more than $1.3 million in outstanding per-pupil payments. The district is currently exhausting its appeals in that matter and Palmer expects a ruling sometime next month.
Palmer recently testified in a City Council hearing helmed by City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who is also the chair of Council’s education committee. There, Palmer made a series of suggestions to the SRC that he believes would help correct the problem.
“I suggested one of the things they do is completely dismantle renaissance schools, which are not charters. They are failed public schools that are reconstituted by the district and controlled by the district, but they then ask a charter school operator to come in and operate them; they are not charter schools,” Palmer said. “Then, I suggested they take those schools and turn them into promise academies. I also said they need to consolidate the mothballed schools; you have William Penn High School on Broad Street that’s sitting empty and costs a fortune to maintain.”
Some of the plans Palmer and other educators suggested — some going back years, if not decades — have finally made their way into the SRC’s reorganization blueprint, such as downsizing the central office; decentralizing certain services and generally trying to trim operations. But the decision to make these cuts came years after continual warnings.
Palmer said the school district really doesn’t have an excuse; the charter school legislation has been in place since 1997, and instead of working in conjunction with charter schools, it seems to him the district is bent on destroying them.
“Stop trying to bash charter schools,” Palmer said. “What we are experiencing now is a white hostile takeover of Black education in America. Folks have realized there are millions and millions to be made [in corporate education] right in the heart of the Black community, and this is happening in urban Black districts with Black folks on their watch.”
The issue of capped enrollment is very real; and doesn’t just affect Philadelphia and its stable of charter schools, as the Chester Upland Charter School recently won the right to uncapped enrollment. Basically, if a charter school is allowed uncapped enrollment, it can then theoretically build other schools to house the added enrollment, provided they meet staffing, safety and academic guidelines.
“They’ve gotten to a point where the school district is bankrupt; why should charters have to pay for the school district’s inability to manage its budget?” said Dr. Veronica Joyner, founder and chief administrative officer of the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School of Philadelphia. “And now, [the SRC] is giving us less. Are they expecting the charters to fail, since they are taking money away instead of rewarding us?”
Like Palmer’s school, MCSCS has made Adequate Yearly Progress in consecutive years, and both its financial and academic records are strong. Joyner, like Palmer, is worried about the possibility of working with fewer funds.
“I am totally concerned about that,” said Joyner, who also serves as president and founder of Parents United for Better Schools, Inc. “The school district already takes almost 30 percent of the allotment given to us by the state. Now they want us to contribute more money when it’s not our failure. Charters are doing good, and there should be more support, not less.”
Joyner said she has a waiting list 7,000-plus students’ strong, which points to the academic prowess of her school. She believes that charters are a unique educational necessity that warrants saving.
“We’re talking about a school district that has failed,” Joyner said. “That budget didn’t just creep up on them like that — it’s been creeping up on them for years, and I am appalled no one saw that and did anything about it. We are already operating on much less than the public schools do. Now they are going to cut us, and expect us to do a better job with less.
“This is not fair to charter school operators, or the families we serve,” Joyner continued. “Because we are expected to do a better job than public schools — and we’ve shown that we are capable of doing that — we should have more support.”
Instead of aiming at charter schools, Joyner said, more attention should be paid to the district’s hierarchy and its plans for a new leader, since direction will no doubt come from on high. Joyner has been in education for more than 40 years, and senses a recurring pattern by the SRC.
“The district usually goes outside of Philadelphia to find a superintendent, and that has always been its first failure,” Joyner said. “My concern is we keep getting people who, on paper, can do these things, but come in and leave the district in a worse state. There are people right here in Philadelphia who can lead the district. I question [the SRC’s] motives.”
Increasing the level of financial transparency, upgrading communications between all levels and departments, establishing a dialog with parents, and improving the quality of education are at the top of the agenda for new School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite Sr.
Hite said during a meeting this week with The Tribune Editorial Board he will present his road map on just how to accomplish those goals when he publishes a report detailing his plans in roughly 90 days.
“The next 90 days or so will be spent really looking at every part of the system, trying to engage the public in a process to talk about what they want to see in the system, and what things we do well and don’t do well, and getting into as many schools as possible,” Hite said. “Really try to determine the structures and systems in place.
“At the end of the 90 days, after I have gotten all the information, I want to then tell everyone, ‘This is what I’ve found, here are all of these plans, and I’m going to try to make sense of all this stuff, here’s what I’m going to do about and here’s how you hold me responsible.’ The plan is what I plan to do about it, and how people can hold me accountable for it.”
Hite referred to sorting out several overlapping documents: the Five-Year Reorganization Blueprint, the FY 2012–2013 school budget and the recently released Five-Year Financial Plan. All of these documents were drafted by the district’s chief recovery officer, Thomas Knudsen, who will most likely stay on as chief financial officer, Hite said. Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon appears to be staying on as well.
While Hite’s tenure as superintendent of the Prince Georges County Public Schools system led to that district having a budget surplus upon Hite’s departure earlier this year, Hite said PGCPS shares many similarities and challenges with Philadelphia’s school district.
“It is a tremendous challenge, but I didn’t see it as something that is much different than what many urban districts are facing across the country,” Hite said, referencing the recently-concluded strike by Chicago teachers, and the similar conflicts with school districts in Los Angeles. “In the last three years, [at PGCPS] we’ve had to lay off 1,300 individuals and cut over $300 million out of our budget.
“So many urban districts are struggling with some of the same issues. I like to describe it as the ‘new normal,’ and gone are the days where we’ll see millions in stimulus flow through. We’d most likely see five percent, 10 percent increases over the previous year’s budgets. I think now is the time when we’re really talking about doing more effective things with what we have, and controlling what we have a lot more efficiently and effectively.”
A way to do that is to advocate on behalf of students for more money at the state level. Hite repeatedly mentioned that advocacy is one of his strongest suits — and that he would personally get involved in that process.
“On the other hand, I believe that [state public education officials] have to see an improved product and an improved system to which they’d want to invest - which means [the school district] has to be a lot more efficient, a lot more transparent and a lot more effective with the monies we have,” Hite said. “I think you have to prove your worth to some degree at first, and that’s the other side of it. So that it’s an advocacy on one side, but on the other side, it is a description that we are putting this house in order and moving as much money as we can to support students in schools and in classrooms.”
Hite, who knows former superintendent Arlene Ackerman well, and is aware of the controversy her tenure and subsequent departure caused, understands that his administration will face close scrutiny, especially if Hite doesn’t reach the more easily attainable goals — which could produce tangible, if tiny, gains. But Hite said if the goals are set up properly, and with the right focus, then students would be among the first to embrace them.
“Naturally, my goals are centered around making sure that students have the types of opportunities beyond high school, and the skills to do the things they want to do once they leave high school, whether that means moving into the work world or into higher education … there’s 140,000-plus students still being educated in this city, and so one can’t give up hope, because then we’re giving up on the students here,” Hite said, noting that he’s used to answering questions about the high turnover rate for superintendents. Hite was the seventh superintendent of PGCPS had during Hite’s 13 years there. “So I think when you start to get at all those structural issues, all of the inefficiencies, all of the disbelief and all of the skepticism, one at a time. And I think you start dealing with those issues one at a time.
“If individuals don’t have faith that the school system can deliver on something, then perhaps we don’t try to do a hundred different things and not deliver any. Perhaps we try to do one or two, and do it really well — so we are actually delivering a product.”
Given all the challenges facing the district, it is fair to question Hite’s motives for even considering the job in the first place. But beyond these problems of today lies optimism of a better public education tomorrow, and Hite said that’s why he came here.
“I am interested in making a difference for all children, and I see this as a tremendous opportunity. The fact that we have no money, the fact the schools are low-performing, the fact that there’s a high dropout right, the fact that Latino males are dropping out faster than anyone else, the fact that many of our schools are in disrepair — we have to think differently; and that’s the opportunity part of it,” Hite said. “I tell staff members that this will be tough, but I appreciate their work. I acknowledge them. I want to hear them, and I want to get to see them in their classrooms as much as possible. This is how we begin a dialog, knowing we can’t continue down the same path.
“This not about me,” Hite continued. “This is about all those young people we educate, and we all have to believe in them.”
With all that’s been going on in our fair city lately, you may have forgotten that there’s a major election less than six weeks away. I think this time around the incumbents prefer it that way.
The School District of Philadelphia, and the School Reform Commission that runs it, have squandered whatever public goodwill they still had. School superintendent Dr. Arlene Ackerman got her nearly million-dollar payout, and instead of going away quietly, has lobbed incendiary grenades at everyone she feels is responsible for her ouster.
Most people would be lounging in a beach chair, sipping on some fruity rum drink with a tiny umbrella in it and toasting their good fortune, but not Ackerman.
She has implicated SRC chair Bob Archie, Mayor Michael Nutter and state Rep. Dwight Evans, among others, as major players in this shameful fiasco that just won’t go away. If she’s telling the truth, those three guys are guilty of serious ethical breaches and violations of the public trust, if not outright crimes.
Archie, partner at Duane Morris, one of the city’s top law firms, has been a power broker in this town for many, many years. While the general public may have just learned of him since his appointment to the SRC, the movers and shakers have long known Archie, and his reputation for getting deals done.
The problem is, the School District is not a private law firm, and deals made on their behalf are public deals using public monies, secret agendas and closed door meetings have no place in a public entity, even though we all know that in Philly, that’s generally how things work.
But Archie turned in his resignation from the SRC early this week, leaving the School District’s governing body with just two members. (SRC member Johnny Irizarry, perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall, quit the same day as Archie.) Mayor Nutter quickly appointed old friend and former employee Wendell E. Pritchett, chancellor of Rutgers University, to fill one of the empty slots, but the damage is done, and the District is almost completely rudderless, at least for now.
I don’t know how he’s managed to do it, but so far Nutter seems untouched by this whole stinking mess. After all, the mayor appoints two SRC members, and he certainly played a large role in Ackerman’s departure — the hideous details of which have yet to come to light.
Speaking of which, isn’t this the same mayor who campaigned four years ago on clean government and an end to municipal corruption? Isn’t this the guy who promised us transparency, integrity and accountability in City Hall? Now he’s lobbying local rich folks for Ackerman’s buyout money and keeping it hush-hush, and if Ackerman’s accusations are to be believed, he’s turning a blind eye to corruption by sitting on a report which would blow the lid off the Martin Luther King charter school scandal, and was not averse to holding 5-year-olds ransom by threatening the end of all-day kindergarten simply to advance his political agenda.
Now, it seems to me that a man — especially an incumbent mayor up for re-election in a few short weeks — would vigorously, publicly and immediately defend himself against such vile accusations.
His opponent in November is Democrat-turned-Republican Karen Brown, who has been making some noise herself lately by demanding a number of debates with Nutter before Election Day. Nutter’s people have agreed to only one public forum, which in all honesty makes more sense for them. You don’t give an unknown opponent the opportunity to compete on your level if you’re the incumbent — especially when you’re favored to win by a landslide.
But it does leave a cloud hanging over the election in many ways.
What if the GOP had put up a serious, well-developed candidate in this race? Would Nutter’s confidence level be as high, especially considering the huge pile of hypocrisy and bad faith that has shown up on his doorstep lately?
Nutter will certainly win, and probably by the predicted margin, but when he does his first phone call of thanks should be placed to Vito Canuso and Mike Meehan, the city’s GOP leadership.
By randomly plucking Brown from obscurity rather than grooming, preparing and financing a genuine alternative candidate, Canuso and Meehan have virtually assured Nutter’s re-election at a time when a little healthy competition could have at least raised the level of discourse.
I have the uneasy feeling that we’re about to get exactly what we deserve.
And then there were two.
After a diligent public and private vetting process that lasted several months, the School Reform Commission has narrowed down to two finalists for the coveted — and controversial — position as the next School District of Philadelphia superintendent.
Both Pedro Martinez and Dr. William R. Hite Jr. are accomplished, esteemed educators who bring a good mix of traditional educational practices and cutting-edge methodology and arrive without any of the questions that surrounded predecessor Arlene Ackerman.
The SRC, under fire for its budget and five-year reorganization plan, which has caused several rounds of layoffs and furloughs, wanted to make sure it got this decision correct, regardless of how painstaking the process turned out to be.
“In January, the five SRC commissioners put together a [superintendent] search team, and put together the job description of the best qualities we thought were important,” said SRC Commissioner Wendell E. Pritchett, the point man for this process. “We then engaged in month-long community meetings, where we put the job description out there. We had facilitators at those meetings who created a final report.
“As a result of that final report [from the stakeholders], we expanded the search team and narrowed [the search] down to 15 people,” Pritchett continued. “We brought in 11 for formal interviews, talked to them about the job description and the specific criteria that the community listed, and judged them on that merit.”
After that, Pritchett said, last month the SRC brought back five of those interviewed, where they met with the search team and with the SRC commissioners; four names were then chosen.
“The SRC search team did more investigation, and talked to them yet again,” Pritchett explained. “Then the SRC decided to bring forward these two.”
It would be hard to argue the qualifications of either Martinez or Hite Jr., one of whom will doubtless become the next leader of Philadelphia’s public school system.
Martinez, currently serving as deputy superintendent of the Clark County School District in Nevada, already went through a public vetting of sorts during yesterday’s public forum. Hite Jr. will go through a similar probing today at 6:30 p.m. at district headquarters, 440 N. Broad Street.
For better or worse, fallowing Ackerman will be a daunting feat, but given Martinez’s background, it seems he has the qualifications for the job. The Clark County School District is the 5th largest in the nation, serving 308,000 students while operating a portfolio that contains 257 schools and academic departments. Martinez is credited for the creation of a program which targeted at-risk seniors, earning the district a 65 percent graduation rate while each of that district’s 49 high schools made significant gains.
Martinez’s academic career is extensive.
Martinez began his life’s work as the director of finance for the Archdiocese of Chicago before leaving to become regional superintendent with Chicago Public Schools, where he later served as chief financial officer, overseeing a $5.2 billion dollar budget; of particular interest, while with CPS, Martinez managed to increase its financial reserves from $200 million to more than $450 million. Student proficiency almost doubled during Martinez’s stewardship of CPS.
Before joining Clark County, Martinez served in a similar capacity at Washoe County School District in Nevada, where he controlled 102 of its schools. Martinez also led aggressive academic initiatives there as well, including the implementation of K–12 college and career readiness program, which considerably increased WCSD’s graduation rate.
Like Martinez, Hite Jr. is a career educator hailed for his turnaround skills.
Hite Jr. currently serves as superintendent of the Prince George’s County Public Schools system in Maryland, where he oversees the nation’s eighth-largest school district, one that educates 135,000 students and contains 200 schools in its portfolio.
Hite Jr. served as assistant superintendent for Atlanta’s Cobb County School District before his PGCS appointment, where he was responsible for 15 schools and the academic adequacy of 18,000 students. But Hite Jr. had his greatest successes in Maryland, where he previously served as interim superintendent before officially being named its leader. Hite Jr. is known for his work on the Intensive Support and Intervention Schools to support the most needy schools and at-risk students, while forging a partnership with the University of Pittsburgh.
Of import, Hite Jr. also led PGCS through a massive reorganization, a skill Hite Jr. will need to rely heavily upon if he is chosen as Philadelphia’s superintendent.
“Their bios speak for themselves. Hite Jr. is a superintendent of a complex school district with a high minority enrollment and led his district through a very difficult time,” said Pritchett. “Martinez is a deputy school superintendent in a district that also has a large minority enrollment and has been a leader in moving their agenda, increasing high school graduation and increasing proficiency.”
If either Martinez or Hite Jr. becomes the next superintendent here, it will continue a long trend of hiring outside the city for its leader. Neither former SRC CEO Paul Vallas nor Ackerman had ties to Philadelphia before their respective appointments. But the search team — and by extension, the SRC — weren’t giving a hometown slide to any candidate.
“Locality was an issue, as five of the candidates were from Philadelphia,” Pritchett said. “Choosing a candidate with Philadelphia connections was important, but in the end, we wanted the best candidate, and [Martinez and Hite Jr.] are the best candidates, given what we are facing.”
And then there was one.
Dr. William R. Hite Jr., is the next superintendent and CEO of the School District of Philadelphia, the School Reform Commission announced Friday.
Hite was one of two finalists for the job. The other, Pedro Martinez, has been named superintendent of Reno, Nevada-based Washoe County School District, that district’s Board of Trustees announced Friday.
However, even before the Martinez’s announcement, Hite seemed the obvious choice.
He met this week with school and city leaders and was endorsed by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, chairman of the education committee, and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson.
Hite comes to Philadelphia from the Prince George’s County Public Schools system in Maryland, where he oversaw the nation’s eighth-largest school district, one that educates 135,000 students and contains 200 schools.
His resume also includes a stint as assistant superintendent for Atlanta’s Cobb County School District before his PGCS appointment, where he was responsible for 15 schools and 18,000 students.
The Philadelphia school district has over 160,000 students.
In Prince George’s County, Hite was known for his work on Intensive Support and Intervention Schools to support the most needy schools and at-risk students, while forging a partnership with the University of Pittsburgh.
He also led PGCS through a massive reorganization, a skill on which Hite will need to rely heavily as Philadelphia’s superintendent.
Announcing the SRC’s selection, Chairman Pedro A. Ramos said, “Today, we take a giant step toward providing safe, high quality educational opportunities for all Philadelphia children. Dr. Hite is an eminent educator and a proven transformative leader.”
Mayor Michael Nutter stated, “I was very impressed with Dr. Hite’s passion and commitment to educating children, support for the professional development of teachers and principals, and his dedication to working with the broader Philadelphia community. He understands that a high performing, high expectation system of schools is critical to the future of the City of Philadelphia. I would like to thank Wendell Pritchett for leading this effort by chairing the search committee and to all of the members of the community who attended meetings, offered advice and were involved in this thorough process.”
For a decade, Philadelphia’s school superintendents have been lightning rods for criticism.
Hite’s immediate predecessor, Arlene Ackerman, left last year under a barrage of controversy, with criticism from parents, the mayor and City Council for her handling of items ranging from school reform to budget negotiations with the city.
The new superintendent will be faced with a growing budget crisis and ongoing reform efforts.
With a budget deficit that is now poised to jump from $218 million to more than $270 million, the SRC will either have to implement another round of cuts, on top of already deep cuts, or borrow to close its spending gap. Already the district, its students and parents are dealing with several rounds of layoffs and furloughs.
Martinez’ sudden exit from the running came early Friday with a statement from the Washoe County School District.
“We are excited to welcome Pedro Martinez to the Washoe County School District. In addition to strong leadership, Pedro brings a tremendous amount of passion for high-quality education, our 63,000 children, and this community. As we continue to move our school district forward, we know Pedro will continue the important work in our strategic plan and will do that work by talking with everyone in our schools and community,” said Board President Ken Grein in a statement released by the WCSD. “We are thrilled to welcome him, and we know our successes will continue as he assumes this critical role.”
WCSD has 63,000 students and includes schools in Reno, Incline Village, Gerlach and Wadsworth.
Martinez and Hite Jr. survived an extensive vetting process that included more than a dozen other candidates. By the time it was all over on Friday, Hite said he was happy to have been chosen.
“Philadelphia is one of America’s greatest cities, and I am excited about the opportunities that it offers. I look forward to working with the leaders and families of this city as we work to improve the lives of our youth,” said Hite.
While details surrounding the transition are still being determined, Search Team Chair and SRC Commissioner Dr. Wendell Pritchett reiterated the SRC’s commitment to an open and transparent process. “We will make Dr. Hite’s contract public as soon as it is finalized,” said Pritchett.
The reaction to the School District’s release earlier this week of the controversial Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools has been mixed, with many local and state elected officials either willing to give the plan a chance, think only a few elements of the plan will work, or wish to scrap the plan altogether.
The blueprint, crafted by the district’s Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen and submitted to the School Reform Commission on Tuesday, calls for sweeping changes — chief among them a complete reorganization of district headquarters, the closure of 64 public schools, and austerity measures which require a multi-million dollar union give back.
The plan also calls for the establishment of a privatization component — called “Achievement Networks” — which will provide certain services to the schools left standing. Overall, if every element of the plan falls in place, district officials believe these measures will lead to a balanced budget at the conclusion of the five-year plan.
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown, co-chair of the education committee and herself once an elementary school teacher, praised the SRC for turning its full attention to the matter, and urged patience as the details of the plan are worked out.
“The School Reform Commission released a bold plan that would dramatically alter what education looks like and feels like to young people in our city. Whether this paradigm shift is the appropriate course of action remains to be seen, but as leaders, it deserves our full attention and respect—we cannot be dismissive about this new budget reality facing the School District of Philadelphia,” Reynolds Brown said. “The devil is always in the details. That notion will absolutely apply as we analyze the data and hear from school district officials as well as those who would be impacted. What does this do to class sizes? How do we make sure our students are not treated like numbers? Will the leadership of localized ‘Achievement Networks’ look like Philadelphia when it comes to diversity? These are the preliminary questions I will be asking.”
Knudsen and SRC chairman Pedro Ramos have repeatedly stated that the organization itself, and businesses participating in the Achievement Networks program will face tight scrutiny, and can be replaced if their products and outcomes are unsatisfactory.
“We need fundamental change and focus on the children and their needs,” Knudsen said the day the blueprint was released. We are righting the ship financially, and finally addressing the change we need to make. But it’s also about a process that is not simple.”
Complicating the process is the blueprint’s plan to shave $156 million from personnel, in the form of a restructured wage scale and benefit program.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, who says the union membership already did its share of sacrificing when the district asked for several cuts over recent years, released a scathing statement, accusing the district of gross mismanagement.
“This restructuring plan has nothing to do with raising student achievement,” Jordan’s statement said. “The district provided a business model, not a research-based plan for turning around or supporting schools. By closing 64 schools, and transferring more and more children out of publicly accountable, neighborhood schools and into charter, cyber-charter and private schools, the School District of Philadelphia is saying it no longer wants to be in the business of educating children. It would rather manage a ‘portfolio’ than do the hard work my members do every day educating children. This is a cynical, right-wing and market-driven plan to privatize public education, to force thousands of economically disadvantaged families to select from an under-funded hodge-podge of EMO- and charter-company-run schools, and to convert thousands of professional and family-sustaining positions into low-paying, high-turnover jobs.”
The blueprint also calls for $122 million in cuts to the district’s overall operations, and a $149 million reduction in public charter school funding; that reduction would equal a 7 percent loss in per-pupil funding.
Knudsen cited New York City’s public school reformation as an example of school reform that works, but education expert Diane Ravitch said that “New York City has not had any great success.” Ravitch, in town earlier this week for the conference of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, told the Philadelphia Public School Notebook that “New York used to boast of dramatic test score gains, but they disappeared in 2010.”
“They’ve gone through four reorganizations,” Ravitch said. “New York has changed so much I don’t know what version Philadelphia is talking about.”
Ravitch, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under several administrations, called plans for privatilization an “abdication of public responsibility.”
“I didn’t see anything that would cause learning to improve, just a lot of rhetoric that schools would achieve more than they used to because we say so,” Ravitch said. “If you really want to improve schools, you have to do something about teaching and learning. This is just shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.”
The blueprint as presented also raises other concerns. Knudsen said that even if the SRC adopts the plan, the district — or whatever remains in its place — wouldn’t actualize any savings until fiscal year 2013; and most of the plan hinges on the $90 million-plus the district is slated to get through the equally controversial Actual Value Initiative – or AVI. These are revenues from an adjusted real estate tax plan. However, AVI is now bogged down in council, and it’s hard to say if or when the school district will receive those funds – or if will be in the $90 million range school officials hope for.
City Council President Darrell Clarke had general praise for the SRC taking this important step, but was careful to note the limits of council’s power in overseeing the district’s spending.
“Some aspects of it make some sense, some are of some concern, but the reality is that things have to change - and they have to change dramatically,” Clarke said. “You have to deal with teachers, and you have to deal with structures.”
Emphasizing that he expected the plan to change, Clarke said he supported its basic premise, and the fact that it laid out a long term plan for the district.
Clarke lauded school commissioners for being open to suggestion from council.
Council is in the process of analyzing Mayor Michael Nutter’s budget, going over it line by line, which includes the assumption that the school district will receive about $94 million more in property tax revenues this year as the city moves toward a property tax system based on full market valuation.
With council expected to give an increased allocation to the district, Clarke expects members to exert more influence on how that money is spent.
That has not always happened in the past. Last year, under the leadership of former school Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the district coaxed $53 million in additional funding from council. But, many council members felt she tricked them when it became clear after the fact that despite Ackerman’s statements to the contrary during the budget process, the district did have money to pay for full-day kindergarten. Ackerman used the threat of eliminating full-day kindergarten as her primary bargaining chip in budget talks with council.
“With this new $90 million request, there is going to be something in there that reflects our viewpoint. That’s just the bottom line,” Clarke said, adding that with new, more cooperative commissioners, he expected the SRC to include some of council’s suggestions.
“They’ve listened to our concerns and listened to our suggestions to this point,” he said.
Ultimately, spending decisions must be made by the SRC.
“Our role is limited,” Clarke said. “We’re simply viewed as the person who is supposed to say ‘aye’ when it comes to the school district budget. That’s essentially what we’ve been.”
While city council debates the merits of the blueprint, State Representative Dwight Evans can do little more than shake his head at this current mess. Evans urged for school reform almost two decades ago, when he submitted both the “School Reform and Accountability Proposal” and drafted a school reform bill for the House in 1997. The blueprint Knudsen submitted bears striking resemblance to many of the suggestions Evans either made through his proposal, or through the Neighborhood School Network intuitive.
“They have a lot of moving parts…there’s some things the state has to do and some things they have to do locally, and there are some things I am not for. For example, anything that would squeeze the aspect of choice around parents and kids, I would not be for,” said Evans, a longtime supporter of the charter school movement. “It flies in the face of being a child-centered system. Because how can you say, on one hand, these students get choice; but on the other hand, stifle choice for everybody else?
“Those are just two of the criticisms I would have,” Evans continued, noting that he agrees it was time for the district to act, but will fight any cuts to charter school funding. “If this is supposed to be about children and parents and not about a dysfunctional system, then in my view, anything these people try to do on the backs of charters is counter-productive. When you look at the numbers, they are basically trying to use charters to balance their budget.”
Staff Writer Eric Mayes contributed to this report.