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Setting the record straight on Ramirez’ SRC tenure

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

In reading the recent spate of stories in the media about the resignation of Heidi Ramirez, one might have thought Ramirez – who’s been described in the media as “outspoken” and “persistent” – was constantly at odds with Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

In fact, a review of the existing public record shows that Ramirez voted in concert with the CEO in all but a handful of instances.

(There is no formal, public record of SRC votes, but I used first-hand information and news reports and checked with other sources to substantiate my count.)

During her 17-month tenure, Ramirez accepted the Superintendent’s recommendation on nearly every District initiative, including reforms to the alternative education and disciplinary school contracts and an effort to recruit more teachers of color to the District. In the few times Ramirez voted against the CEO’s recommendation, she articulated concerns focused on needs-based assessment, actual costs, evidence-based results, process, and performance measures.

In other words, her questions were the stuff of oversight – not micromanagement or personality disagreements: Is this what the District needs? How much does it cost? What’s the record of success? How will we know when we’ve met our goals?

This record challenges what appears to be three prevalent critiques of Dr. Ramirez’s role at the District: first, that she micromanaged and wanted to be superintendent; second, that she and Ackerman simply had two different views on education and disagreed about how to approach it; and third, that the two women had a personality conflict, with the superintendent charging “cultural insensitivity” on top of everything else.

According to my documentation, there were only three instances that Ramirez recorded a final vote that went against the CEO’s recommendation, and just two others where she and another SRC member delayed action by abstaining on a resolution.

One "no" vote was against a Tony Danza teaching “reality” show at Northeast High School. For Ramirez, who has long touted setting high teacher quality and professional development standards, this vote was a no-brainer.

In June, Ramirez cast the lone vote against supporting the wholesale renewal of education management organizations at a cost of more than $10 million. The District published a document on EMO performance data from 2002-2008, which outlined the performance of 26 EMO schools in the District. The District’s own data shows dramatic differences across schools and providers.

For example, Foundations’ work at King High School (pp. 82-83) is troubling, to say the least. Over the past seven years, the number of King students performing below basic in math has grown by more than 30 points. Meanwhile the number of students performing at proficient and above in math has dropped by half over the years.

Why, Ramirez asked, wouldn’t the District distinguish between the schools that were meeting District standards and the ones that weren’t? Why was there wholesale renewal with no clear plan to address the situation? Why was the District repeating for the third year in a row their claim that it would be next year that they would have a plan in place, better criteria, and oversight?

"As an educator and a researcher, I’m not yet convinced that we have real evidence of progress at all of these schools," said Ramirez, who directs the Urban Education Collaborative at Temple University. (Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/25/09)

That month she also cast the lone vote against the CEO’s recommendation to hire a former Edison Schools executive to head the controversial Renaissance Schools effort, which could see the possible turnover of low-performing schools to outside managers. A month earlier, Ramirez, joined by Commissioner Johnny Irizarry, had delayed approval of the $90,000 contract for former Edison Schools president Leroy Nunery.

According to media reports, Irizarry said he wanted “a specific plan for the ‘Renaissance Schools’ in place before other actions are taken.”

Superintendent Ackerman, was annoyed by the delay.

Ackerman added that the questioning by Ramirez and Johnny Irizarry – who successfully voted down the same resolution the previous month – has caused "real confusion" for her and staff.

"We took the vote – the unanimous vote – as the agreement to move forward. And if that is not going to happen, then I guess we need to revisit this whole discussion. Because it means a lot of things – we need to stop work on a lot of things," Ackerman said. (Daily News, 6/11/09)

The unraveling had begun months earlier in February when Ramirez and former SRC Commissioner Marty Bednarek said they were not prepared to support two contract resolutions for Teach for America, a two-year teaching stint for recent college graduates.

Ramirez and Bednarek delayed passage of the resolutions pending requested information regarding specific teacher shortage needs and the district’s plans to improve retention and placement of individuals in alternative programs like TFA. Ramirez noted that the early hiring of TFA teachers would bump the placement of fully certified teachers and wanted to ensure that TFA hires were placed in areas where the District had shortages.

In response, Ackerman complained she didn’t have time to answer the commissioners’ questions and snapped back with such vigor it drew media attention:

Ackerman accused the two of making a deal and snapped, "The SRC should reform itself."

The Superintendent later told reporters that she kept logs on each SRC members’ questions and believes that Ramirez’s resignation was part of an “all-out personal attack.”

Below is a record of other comments from Heidi Ramirez from compiled news sources about the issues:

On teacher quality:

  • Regarding inquiries about the Teach for America contract:
  • “Ramirez said she has not received data she has been requesting for months about the "long-term supply and demand" situation for teachers in the city and was reluctant to keep relying so heavily on TFA and NTP to fill vacancies until she had more information. Among other things, she said she wanted data on where the District would be hit hardest with retirements and what local universities were or weren’t doing to supply teachers in the needed areas.” (Public School Notebook, 2/18/09)
  • Regarding the Strategic Plan’s addressing of teacher hires:
  • “After Ackerman and her team presented the plan’s highlights, just one of the four commissioners had questions. Heidi Ramirez asked why the plan did not address ways to more equitably distribute qualified teachers to schools and to recruit more math and science teachers.” (Daily News, 4/16/09)

On Budgeting for the Strategic Plan:

  • Ramirez also asked how much the plan would cost.
  • "I’ve read in the paper, for instance, that it’s a $50 million plan. I haven’t seen any numbers," she said. "It’s about $160 million over five years," Ackerman awkwardly responded.
  • When she released a first draft in February, Ackerman said that the plan would cost $50 million. Following yesterday’s meeting, she backed away from the $160 million figure, saying that the final amount would be made public Wednesday, when the plan is voted on and the district’s preliminary $3 billion budget for next year is released. (Daily News, 4/16/09)
  • Commissioner Heidi Ramirez appeared troubled by the lack of firm cost projections for the major initiative she was being asked to support.
  • The $160 million figure "was the first time I’d heard a number at all," said Ramirez, who heads the Urban Education Collaborative at Temple University. (Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/16/09)
  • "I’m concerned that the state may not approve a budget that a district like Philadelphia so needs," commission member Heidi Ramirez said following the special budget meeting. "I continue to be so impressed with what our students do and accomplish with so limited resources, but I know they need a heck of a lot more." (Daily News, 5/28/09)

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