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Ackerman’s future discussed in her absence

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

UPDATED 8:45 p.m.:

"Where is Superintendent Ackerman?"

That question dominated another raucous School Reform Commmission meeting Wednesday, at which it ultimately became evident the the School Reform Commission and Mayor Nutter are trying to engineer her departure.

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams rebuked the SRC over how they are handling the situation with Ackerman, who he said had been responsible for more academic gains in the District than any superintendent in 20 years.

He demanded a meeting between the Senate Education Committee and the SRC, and said he will work to abolish the SRC governing structure.

He also strongly criticized the decision to slash the planned expansion of Promise Academies next year from 11 to just three, saying it was done over Ackerman’s objections. He said the Promise Academies had markedly increased student achievement. The Promise Academies are Ackerman’s signature initiative.

Ackerman did not attend the meeting, and when Williams pointedly asked SRC Chair Robert Archie where she was, Archie replied: "She chose not to be here."

State Sen. Williams calls on the SRC to meet with the Senate Education Committee and challenges them to speak to Superintendent Ackerman’s absence from the meeting.

Williams said that his information was otherwise and he challenged Mayor Nutter to speak up: "If he does support her, he should make that clear to the public."

Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald declined comment.

Ackerman met with supporters Tuesday night and apparently indicated that she wanted to stay, but that the mayor and SRC wanted her out.

Before Archie’s explanation of why Ackerman wasn’t there, a District spokesperson had told reporters that she was sick.

Jamilah Fraser, head of the communications office, explained that she had spoken to Ackerman early this morning and that the superintendent said she wasn’t feeling well. "As far as I was concerned, she was absent because she was sick. I hadn’t spoken to her in the afternoon," Fraser said. Fraser said she was unaware of what Archie would say.

In conversation with reporters right after he spoke publicly at the meeting, Williams said that he had spoken to Ackerman and that it was neither true that she was sick nor that she "chose" not to be at the meeting.

Williams said that Ackerman has been "marginalized" in decision-making at the District, the result of "politics." He told the SRC that it made no sense for the person who had designed the program for the upcoming year not to be at the helm when schools opened. This is happening because of the superintendent’s "personality, not performance," Williams said.

Despite the harsh accusations against them by Williams and other Ackerman supporters, who said in public testimony that Archie was lying about the reason for the superintendent’s absence, the four SRC members left the room at the close of the meeting without making further comments.

Williams told reporters that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers lobbied to cut back Promise Academies because the union’s older members did not like the school model doesn’t honor seniority and offers "merit pay" – although actually the teachers who work there get extra pay for working longer hours. Near the end of the public comment session, two teachers at the Potter-Thomas Promise Academy offered high praise for the model and said it had helped both them and their students.

"The public is crying out that we need Dr. Ackerman," said parent activist Pamela Williams, one of Ackerman’s staunchest supporters. She also said that she knew Ackerman had been told not to attend the meeting. She was the most vociferous in accusing Archie of lying and demanded that he own up. Archie sat silently.

Archie opened the meeting with a statement that Ackerman "is and continues to be the superintendent in Philadelphia," which provoked clapping and cheers from her supporters.

But he added, "We will not speculate on her future employment with the District. We will continue to work with the superintendent to make sure we have a successful school year."

Rumors have been swirling that the SRC has been negotiating for the past six weeks the terms of Ackerman’s departure. Pamela Williams and other supporters kept demanding, "What has she done?"

Another vocal supporter, Emmanuel Bussie, called her his "hero."

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