By Joseph Batory
It was one of those newspaper items on March 19, 2016 that most people just gloss over. Yet this news article is a terrible indictment of some past practice in the School District of Philadelphia.
In 2011, the School Reform Commission which oversees the School District of Philadelphia fired one of its central level administrators. His name was Francis X. Dougherty and he had gone public about a “no bid” $7.5 million contract which was pushed through by then superintendent of schools Arlene Ackerman. When Dougherty revealed that this contract did not follow the required proper bidding procedures, he was terminated for essentially “not keeping his mouth shut.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer eventually documented how Ackerman engineered the last-minute award of what began as a small contract for surveillance cameras at South Philadelphia High School to a minority firm which was not on the list of State-approved contractors. The bid award was also dramatically increased. The new contractor, reportedly at Ackerman’s insistence, was now awarded a multi-million dollar without any competitive bidding after work on the job had already begun by another contractor.
Not surprisingly, a federal jury has now found that Dougherty had been wrongfully dismissed on the basis that Ackerman had initially denied Dougherty’s right to free speech by placing him on leave and then subsequently recommending his termination.
As a result of this debacle, the School Reform Commission recently agreed to pay $725,000.00 to Dougherty. Worse yet, the School Reform Commission has paid nearly $1 million to defend itself in the Dougherty case.
During Ackerman’s tenure, throughout the trenches of Philadelphia’s schools, many employees sarcastically referred to her as “the queen,” an unflattering characterization given to her by Philadelphia Magazine. There were many news reports that as the school system’s educational leader, Ackerman was known for her autocratic style. She never liked to be questioned. At a time when residents were losing jobs or taking pay cuts, Ackerman resented people questioning her large salary and those of her top aides. And she was often deaf to educational concerns presented by the public.
When Ackerman finally was forced out by the School Reform Commission after only three years as Philadelphia’s superintendent of schools, she was awarded an excessive separation pay of $900,000.00, Ackerman claimed that she had only cared about the students but this seems ridiculous just in the context of the “no-bid” fiasco and her separation package.
However Ackerman is not the main issue of this article.
The more important and larger concern is how all of this could have happened with the State-imposed School Reform Commission in charge of the School District of Philadelphia.
With school buildings in decay, cutbacks occurring to school nurses and guidance counselors, reductions of art and music programs, and larger class sizes proliferating, many millions of dollars just in the instances cited above went uselessly out the window instead of into Philadelphia’s schools.
Tragically, the arrogance of power often prevails over the educational needs of city children and there is not just one guilty party.
(Joseph Batory is the author of three books and has been published extensively on the politics of education.)