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Ackerman: I’m here to stay

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

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman reiterated today that she is here to stay, flatly denying that she has been talking to the School Reform Commission about leaving.

"This may be wishful thinking for some, but I’m here, let me be really clear about that," Ackerman said at an SRC meeting called to pass a resolution authorizing the collection of city taxes for the District. "There are no discussions underway."

Ackerman, in a statement during the meeting and to a scrum of reporters afterward, said she believes that criticism of her leadership – and leaks of documents including the draft of potential school closings – are "distractions" perpetrated by people who are not interested in educating all children in public schools, just some.

"I don’t know how that rumor got started, but I hope today we can end it and we can move on with the work of trying to improve the educational lot of all of our children; not some of them, not those, not mine, but all of our children," she said.

She and her deputy Leroy Nunery characterized a document that transfers to him power to sign important paperwork during the months of July and August as “routine” and recommended by attorneys. She said she was planning to take some time off during those months "and I’m not going to apologize," saying she hasn’t had a real vacation in three years.

"This is how most large organizations are run: a succession plan and a plan for action. People have jumped to conclusions," Nunery said.

Later, District spokesperson Fernando Gallard reported that the District’s Office of General Counsel said this is not the first time such a document was prepared in case of contingency; the last time was in May, he said, although Gallard said he didn’t know why.

Asked whether she wanted to stay on as superintendent given the mounting criticism against her, Ackerman said:

"I came here to do this job. I was asked to do it. And as far as I know the SRC, the mayor, and all those people who were critical to my staying are still on board and very much focused on moving forward with Imagine 2014. I don’t know who these other people are, but they’re not going to get their way here. I’m here for these young people."

After the vote on the resolution, several public speakers questioned several aspects of District decision-making.

Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education (and a Notebook blogger) criticized the District for "disrespecting the public," and losing credibility. She urged a change in leadership.

As the meeting was about to be adjourned, one of the scheduled public speakers, Emmanuel Bussie from GOTV America, raced in and spoke glowingly of Ackerman’s accomplishments, accusing District critics of seeking the limelight and undermining children’s education.

"There should be fewer attacks and more ideas," he said. Later, Ackerman said that people she meets in "supermarkets and on the streets" are always urging her to fight for all the District’s children, not just some "just as that young man said" – referring to Bussie.

"This school system works well for adults; unfortunately it doesn’t work well for many of the young people," she said. She said that some of her critics may find "threatening" her resolve to make sure all students are educated.

"We came here to do a job, we’re going to do that job, and all the rest of this is just noise, from leaking documents that are drafts to rumors that I’m leaving," she said.

Christie Balka, who is the director of child care and budget policy for Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said that school closings might adversely affect the availability of subsidized early childhood education in the city – which now serves just 30 percent of eligible children.

And Rebecca Poyourow, a parent of students at Cook-Wissahickon, asked how the teacher layoff policy was taking into account potential school closings. She said that even though 84 children were registered for third grade in that school next year, one of three teachers was being laid off. "The layoffs are not considering a school’s future needs," she said.

Ackerman and Estelle Matthews, the District’s director of talent and development, said that the issue of layoffs is still being worked out in arbitration, but they are committed to fulfilling an agreement with City Council to restore smaller class size in kindergarten through 3rd grades.

Kristen Graham of the Inquirer live tweeted the meeting, and other comments and updates from the meeting were tagged with the #phillyeducation hashtag.