Another big money superintendent leaves in disgrace— This one was a former teacher

Arlene Ackerman is getting $905,000 to leave her job as superintendent of The School District of Philadelphia— the country’s 8th largest district. Ackerman, a former teacher and fierce advocate for inner-city children, seems on paper like the kind of person I’d want to be running a school district.

It turns out she was nuts, or a bad leader.

Here’s some reporting from the Huffington Post:

Ackerman’s tenure collapsed over the past few months as the district faced a colossal budget hole, a dispute with the teachers union and criticism of everything from her salary to her management style.

With the situation becoming increasingly untenable, Ackerman faced it head-on Thursday in a speech to district principals. She publicly challenged school board members to “sentence me … or set me free” in what many saw as an unannounced farewell speech.

She entered the room to Sade’s song “Is It A Crime?” – which became the theme of her remarks. She also read Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise”: “You may shoot me with your words, you may cut me with your eyes, you may kill me with your hatefulness, but still, like air, I rise.”

Bad news. Here’s more:

Critics called her “Queen Arlene,” saying she was polarizing, autocratic and overpaid; her $348,000 salary was twice what the mayor makes. The district’s $664 million budget gap this year – due in part to cuts in state and federal aid – led to thousands of pink slips and program cuts.

She drew criticism for a no-bid contract for school surveillance cameras, for her bungled handling of racial violence at a high school and for a high-profile dispute with a teacher who questioned Ackerman’s decision to turn a district school into a charter.

She also fought with the teachers union after trying to protect certain staff from layoffs.

Union president Jerry Jordan, who had previously called for Ackerman to step down, said Philadelphia needs a leader who is more willing to listen to teachers and employees.

“Many times there was a sense of intimidation and/or retaliation for people voicing their concerns,” Jordan said.

In the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“Everybody I talk to is miserable, feeling very, very lost in terms of direction and in terms of leadership,” said Deidre Farmbry, who was acting superintendent in 2001.

How did it come to this?

In interviews, union heads, government leaders, teachers, students, and former city education executives described a superintendency undone by poor decisions and political missteps crowned by an unwillingness to compromise and a management style that many took for arrogance.

Much more local coverage of Ackerman’s departure can be found at the excellent Philly schools website The Notebook.

I was critical of Michael Bloomberg’s decision to hire as chancellors Joel Klein and Cathie Black, two corporate veterans without experience in education. It’s a real gut punch when a former teacher who rises to the top of the pyramid implodes so spectacularly.

I know there are some hero-teacher-superintendents incubating out there. Who are they, and how will they get to those top posts?

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