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Leroy Nunery takes center stage

Photo: Benjamin Herold

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

by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook, WHYY/NewsWorks

For the last 14 months, Leroy Nunery, 55, has been departing Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s second-in-command, presiding over large portions of the day-to-day operations of the eighth-largest school district in the country.

Now, with just two weeks to go before the start of school, he’s been tapped to take the reins of a district in disarray, with major hurdles ahead.

Last week, Nunery addressed hundreds of principals at the District’s annual leadership conference.

"It’s togetherness that is going to get us through the craziness we sometimes face," Nunery told the school leaders.

"Teamwork is the key."

Listen to Dr. Nunery’s speech at the 2011 Superintendent’s Leadership Conference

In explaining Nunery’s appointment at a Monday press conference, Mayor Michael Nutter said that it makes sense to have the deputy superintendent take over when a superintendent leaves and believes Nunery has the capacity to lead the District to a smooth opening of school.

"Over the course of the summer we have had regular meetings with District leadership about the opening of schools," Nutter said. "The superintendent doesn’t personally open the 258 buildings; it takes a whole team of people."

While he is still a relative newcomer to the system, the District described Nunery as bringing a "wealth of experience," in a statement announcing Ackerman’s departure and Nunery’s promotion. The statement said that he would be acting superintendent while a national search for a replacement is being conducted.

Nunery was named District deputy superintendent in June 2010, earning a salary of $230,000. He had previously earned $180,000 as the chief of institutional advancement and strategic partnerships.

Nunery takes over a District caught in the maelstrom of staggering budget cuts made to close a $600 million-plus gap, a statewide political push to expand vouchers and charters, and the festering wounds left by Ackerman’s drawn-out and contentious departure.

He will also be confronted with a challenging labor situation. The District is still counting on $75 million in concessions from its five unions to balance its 2011-12 budget, and the relationship between Ackerman and the District’s nearly 10,000 teachers has grown increasingly toxic in recent months.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said in a statement Monday that the change of leadership was "welcome news." He expressed hope that Nunery would bring a "new attitude" to the District.

“Instead of treating PFT members as adversaries, I hope that the acting superintendent sees teachers, staff, and their elected union representatives as partners in reform," said Jordan in the statement.

Nunery first began working with the District after being a runner-up in the superintendent search that led to Ackerman’s hiring in 2008. Nunery’s management consulting firm, PlusUltre, LLC, received a contract to help with the District’s Renaissance Schools initiative the following year. Nunery’s firm staffed the Renaissance Schools Advisory Board.

One key player in the Renaissance Schools initiative, Mastery Charter Schools CEO Scott Gordon, said of Nunery: "I think Lee is very plugged in to the operations of the School District. He understands Renaissance Schools and Renaissance charters and Promise Academies. I’m optimistic he’ll be able to keep the program moving forward."

As deputy superintendent, Nunery has taken the lead on other key initiatives including the District’s facilities master planning process as well as the District’s response to its budget crisis.

He has also been a player in some of the recent controversies that have besieged the District. Nunery and other top-level executives in Ackerman’s cabinet, were blasted for their high salaries in the midst of the District’s financial crisis. In February, Nunery took 10 furlough days to help deal with the District’s budget shortfall.

By March, Nunery was the subject of speculation for his role in a secret closed-door meeting about the takeover of Martin Luther King High School as a Renaissance charter school. Foundations, Inc. and Mosaica Education both competed for the charter, and Mosaica initially won approval by the School Reform Commission. But a subsequent meeting that involved School Reform Commission Chair Robert Archie, State Rep. Dwight Evans, and John Q. Porter, head of Mosaica, Inc., effectively put the charter, estimated to be worth as much as $60 million over five years, back in the hands of Foundations. Ultimately Foundations pulled out and King was named a Promise Academy.

It was weeks after the meeting took place that Archie hinted at and the District confirmed that Nunery was in attendance. A District spokesperson said Nunery sat "shocked" at what he was witnessing, but that he never spoke about the details of the meeting with Ackerman. He has not spoken publicly on the meeting since Mayor Nutter directed his chief integrity officer, Joan Markman, to investigate the affair. Although four months have passed, no report on the investigation has yet been released.

On Monday, Nutter said Markman’s report should be released "in a few weeks" and downplayed any thought that the report might present a problem for Nunery.

Besides handling the budget crisis and being responsible for a smooth opening of school on September 6 – as the District scrambles to fill 1,000 teacher positions – Nunery must prepare to oversee the District’s planned closing of dozens of schools. An announcement of the schools targeted for closure is expected in October.

Other management areas that have been part of Nunery’s portfolio as deputy superintendent include procurement, human resources, charter schools, and information technology.

Prior to joining the District, Nunery worked extensively in the business world, including a two-year stint at Edison Schools, a controversial for-profit educational management company that played a major role in Philadelphia schools for most of the past decade. Starting in July 2005, Nunery oversaw Edison’s charter school division, which at the time covered 60 schools serving 27,000 students in 14 states.

That division is no longer in existence, with Edison having renamed itself EdisonLearning, Inc. It is now pursuing a different business model.

Prior to that, Nunery was vice president of business services at the University of Pennsylvania, where he helped oversee the revitalization of the University City neighborhood surrounding the campus.

While there, he focused heavily on minority business inclusion, seeking to ensure that women vendors and people of color got a share of the business in the community.

Nunery "was an instrumental part of my team, particularly expanding access for minorities and women to open and own businesses, which was great for the local economy," said current Drexel President John Fry, who was Nunery’s boss at the time.

"He is a heart and soul kind of guy," Fry said of Nunery. "Anyone who has worked with him will tell you about his work ethic and the energy he brings."

Nunery continues to be affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, serving as an adjunct instructor for the Fels Institute of Government and a senior consultant for Fels’ Research and Consulting Group. Nunery earned his doctorate in education from Penn in 2003. He also has an M.B.A. from Washington University and earned a bachelor’s degree from Lafayette College in 1977.

Notebook intern Avi Wolfman-Arent contributed reporting to this article.

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