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Philadelphia schools chief gets $900,000 buyout

Ackerman earlier fled post in D.C.

- Associated Press - Monday, August 22, 2011

PHILADELPHIA — The city's embattled schools superintendent abruptly left the district Monday with a promised $900,000 buyout, capping a tumultuous tenure that saw increased test scores but also clashes with community members, the teachers union and elected leaders.

Arlene Ackerman is being bought out of her contract with a combination of public and private funds and will be replaced in the interim by her deputy superintendent, according to a district statement.

"This decision, as difficult as it was for Dr. Ackerman, is consistent with her history, as well as recognition that for the district to best move forward, it must do so with new leadership," said Robert Archie Jr., chairman of the city-state commission that oversees the schools.

Ms. 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, Ms. 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."

Neither Ms. Ackerman nor the school commissioners held news conferences on Monday. In a statement, Ms. Ackerman said she was "truly grateful for having had the opportunity and honor to serve the children and parents of Philadelphia."

An educator for 43 years, Ms. Ackerman had previously served as superintendent in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. She came to Philadelphia, the nation's eighth-largest district, in 2008.

She is credited with continuing the district's rise in test scores - a streak now at nine years - as well as lowering class sizes in primary grades, creating a parent-outreach program and launching her signature "renaissance schools" initiative to overhaul chronically failing schools.

But 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 - a result 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 Ms. 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 Ms. 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," Mr. Jordan said.

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