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Already the news articles and columns have begun attempting to paint former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman as the victim in recent events. Opinions are being expressed that she must have been telling the truth about her role in the Martin Luther King High School debacle. Annette John-Hall even offered an open apology to Ackerman in her Inquirer column last week.
Before we all appear to have been flashy-thinged by the Men in Black, let’s take a reality check here. We are being asked to believe that all of Ackerman’s testimony in the recent report issued by Mayor Nutter’s Chief Integrity Officer is true. We are being asked to believe that her story, unchallenged by any credible witnesses, is gospel. However, the only others present at meetings described by her—State Representative Dwight Evans and his associates-- refused to give testimony; those present during phone calls were colleagues and staff whose interests lie with Dr. Ackerman.
We don’t need to turn back the pages of recent history too far to remind ourselves of all the prevarications, disingenuous answers and outright lies uttered by Dr. Ackerman during her reign in Philadelphia.
When the story of the backroom meeting with SRC Chair Robert Archie and Dwight Evans broke this past March, Ackerman’s spokesperson maintained that she knew nothing about it. After a month of rumor and speculation, Assistant Superintendent Leroy Nunery finally admitted —through his representative— to being the “unnamed district representative” present at that meeting in Martha Woodall’s April 24 Inquirer story. However, Dr. Nunery’s testimony in the recently published report states not only that he was there but that he immediately reported the events to Ackerman, describing the meeting to her as something out of “the Godfather”. Begging the question: Was she lying then or is she lying now?
Let us recount just some of the incidents over the years in which Dr. Ackerman has been less than honest. Her excuse for not immediately dealing with the crisis at South Philadelphia High School was that an Asian student actually incited the violence by harassing an African-American disabled student, a story for which she offered no proof and which has never been verified. She claimed to be out of town when the attempted silencing and termination of teacher Hope Moffet began; she used that same excuse when the District tried to change the acceptance process for magnet schools without parent notification (she has no phone or email?). She initially denied playing any part in the no-bid contract scandal in which business was diverted from one company, which had already begun the work, to another (non-approved) company. When caught in that lie, she said that she was only trying to help out minority businesses. She held an awards ceremony at Roosevelt Middle School after test scores rose fifty-three points in just two years, a feat which she must known was statistically impossible. She has yet to explain how she allowed several administrators, including South Philadelphia High School Principal LaGreta Brown, to be appointed by the school district without full accreditation. Throughout this past summer, Ackerman insisted that she was not leaving, telling her own supporters “I’m staying” while simultaneously negotiating her exit contract. She violated that same contract by subsequently engaging in public slander against her former colleagues.
Let us not forget the most egregious lie of all: that she did not know that the school district was heading towards a massive deficit which has had a disastrous effect on every school in Philadelphia. She offered her highly questionable explanation in an interview given after she resigned: “I didn’t understand the numbers.”
So when Dr. Ackerman says in the city’s report that she did not know that Melonease Shaw, to whom she paid thousands of school district dollars for “consulting”, was affiliated with Representative Evans, I believe that some skepticism on the part of the public is to be expected. When we hesitate to take seriously her assertion that she never knew that politics was involved in running a major city school district, can you really blame us?
Some crucial questions remain unanswered: how did Mosaica, whose CEO John Porter is a identified in the report as a colleague of Dr. Ackerman’s at the Broad Academy (a privately-funded institution which schools future superintendents according to a pro-charter, pro-voucher curriculum), come to be a finalist on the list of providers at Martin Luther King High? And how is Ackerman shocked, shocked at Chairman Archie’s actions in overriding the wishes of a school community after having done the same herself in more than one instance? When the West Philadelphia High School community protested the unexpected takeover of their school, Ackerman’s response was to accuse the parents of a having a conflict of interest. When students, teachers and parents protested the unjustified giveaway of Audenreid High to Kenny Gamble’s Universal company, their wishes were ignored. Now we are to believe that she found this recent overriding of parents at King “tragic”.
Dr. Ackerman’s account of recent events should be investigated in a follow-up report. The inappropriate, possibly illegal, acts of Chairman Archie and Rep. Evans are brought to light in this report and both should face the consequences for those acts and the subsequent cover-up. Why should we spend the time and energy doing the same regarding Dr. Ackerman’s possible transgressions? First, we must ensure that no future superintendent will be allowed to take on the mantle of royalty and go unchallenged by her own superiors. And the most important reason: because the public has a right to know.
Lisa Haver is an education activist; she recently retired from teaching middle school in Philadelphia.