- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Philadelphia’s Democratic machine is under fire after officials arranged for private, anonymous cash payments to buy out the contract of the unpopular school superintendent in the nation’s eighth-largest public school district.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, known to her detractors as “Queen Arlene,” agreed Monday to leave her post less than three weeks before the start of the school year in exchange for a $905,000 buyout.

Wealthy private citizens kicked in $405,000 of the total to make Ms. Ackerman go away, but neither Mayor Michael A. Nutter nor Robert Archie Jr., chairman of the city-state panel that oversees the district, will identify the donors.

The secrecy has prompted calls for a state attorney general’s investigation and demands by a government watchdog group for the city’s top Democrats to come clean.

“The biggest danger is that the donors will expect or receive some reward” from City Hall, said Zack Stalberg, president of a watchdog group called the Committee of Seventy. “In Philadelphia, people tend to want their favors rewarded.”

State Rep. Michael McGeehan, Philadelphia Democrat, has asked for a state investigation, saying the deal flies in the face of transparent government. Education activist Helen Gym called the end of Ms. Ackerman’s stormy tenure “a citywide embarrassment.”

Critics argue that such a golden parachute for the school superintendent was made easier in a city where one party has ruled for decades.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in Philadelphia by a ratio of more than 6-to-1, and the city hasn’t had a Republican mayor since 1952. The ability of the city’s Democratic machine to get out the vote for elections is crucial to the hopes of any statewide Democratic candidate and to presidential nominees such as Barack Obama, who carried Pennsylvania in 2008. Mr. Nutter is a vocal supporter of Mr. Obama.

“It would be a lot harder for this kind of deal to be negotiated in the first place if there were a competitive political system in Philadelphia,” Mr. Stalberg said. “The lack of a competitive system and the ever-present race issue is the way it played out.”

Some supporters of Ms. Ackerman, who is black, have long contended that she was a victim of racist attitudes by white residents and the media. One of her supporters burned a copy of one of the city’s two daily newspapers on a sidewalk in response to what she perceived as biased coverage against the superintendent.

Critics have cited Ms. Ackerman’s high base salary of $348,140 a year, her perks, including a $100,000 retention bonus, and her failure to deal effectively with school violence. The criticism grew this year when the school district developed a deficit of more than $600 million, resulting in layoffs of about 1,500 teachers this summer.

As the mayor and others sought to force out Ms. Ackerman, she responded with behavior that one of the city’s newspaper columnists characterized as a page out of the “diva handbook.”

She showed up at a meeting last week to the musical accompaniment of Sade’s “Is It a Crime?” (Lyrics: “Is it a crime that I still want you? And I want you to want me, too.”) She recited a poem by Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise” (including a passage: “Does my haughtiness offend you?/Don’t you take it awful hard/’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines/Diggin’ in my own back yard.”)

Said Mr. Stalberg, “Both she and her supporters played it magnificently.”

Under her contract, Ms. Ackerman was entitled to a buyout of up to $1.5 million. The mayor, who came into office four years ago on a platform of ethics reform, is said to have insisted that taxpayers pay no more than $500,000 to send Ms. Ackerman on her way. That was when the mayor and school district officials began searching for well-connected private individuals to kick in for the rest of the superintendent’s buyout package.

The private money is to be channeled through a charity, Philadelphia’s Children First Fund, affiliated with the school district. Ms. Ackerman sits on the charity’s board, as does her interim successor and Mr. Archie. Legal analysts say the arrangement is unusual but probably legal.

“It may be legal, but we think it’s wrong,” Mr. Stalberg said. “Clearly, they are using a nonprofit as a way to hide the identity of the donors. It was a handy way to shield the donors.”

In a statement, Mr. Archie said Ms. Ackerman produced “real results” since arriving in Philadelphia in 2008, including three years of gains in test scores and a 29 percent decline in reported violence.