THE BIG OFFICE on the third floor of the Philadelphia School District administration building was not ready for prime time last week. The desk, chairs, bookcases and file cabinets were topsy-turvy, the walls nearly bare.
But Arlene Ackerman, who today officially takes the helm of the nation's eighth-largest school district, was beyond ready. For weeks, the incoming chief executive officer has been taking mental notes as she made the rounds of the expansive building at 440 N. Broad St.
The grandmother of three, an educator for 38 years, was impressed by some things, taken aback by others.
"I asked for something and someone said, 'That's not my job.' I was like, 'OK,' " Ackerman recalled, still smarting.
On another occasion she helped an utterly lost mother find the room she was looking for.
"We were just two people trying to find this room," said Ackerman, who previously ran the school districts in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
"This poor parent just looked so lost in that big hall. I was glad I could help her."
Making the central administration more user-friendly is near the top of the list of priorities that Ackerman released last week. The building will stay open from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., instead of 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
"One of my first priorities is to change the culture of this building so that people understand that it's everybody's job to provide friendly customer service to folks who are here," said Ackerman, 61. "You don't have to know the answer, but you should be able to get up and try to help them."
This morning, Ackerman moves her fact-finding to the school level.
At 9 a.m. she'll tour Fox Chase Academics Plus School, 500 Rhawn St., in the Northeast. She was invited by fifth-grade students who participate in a program called "The Power of the Pen," which challenges them to research and contact people from various walks of life through written invitation.
At 11 a.m. she'll be at Overbrook High School, on Lancaster Avenue near 58th Street, where she'll have a tour and lunch with students.
Then it's on to City Hall, where Ackerman will join Mayor Nutter and other officials at a 2 p.m. news conference to urge the public to support Gov. Rendell's proposed education-funding formula, which would pump $85 million in new money into city schools during 2008-09.
Since being selected to become the new schools CEO in February, Ackerman has been receiving kind words from many corners - from members of the School Reform Commission that hired her to Gov. Rendell to Mayor Nutter to Jerry Jordan, president of the city teachers' union.
But Greg Wade, president of the Home and School Council, the city's largest parents group, is ready for Ackerman's honeymoon to end.
"They're looking at her as a savior, they do that every time. Paul Vallas was going to be the savior, Tom Brady was going to be the savior, now her," he said, wryly referring to the district's two previous CEOs.
"Nobody is going to be a savior, there is too much to do. We just hope that she sticks to her plans and makes this a better system when she leaves, than it was when she arrived."
Told of Wade's concern, Ackerman agreed with him.
"I'm not a savior, believe me, I struggle and bleed red blood. This is a hard job," she said. "There is no way I can do this job by myself. But there is, certainly, great hope that together we can make big things happen for children."
One of the ways she plans to help children is by holding adults more accountable.
"We've got plenty of accountability for the students that we serve," Ackerman said, "and not nearly enough for the adults who serve them."
Performance goals will be established for her, and for senior administration officials, regional superintendents and principals, Ackerman said.
"That's [something] that I'm going to do right away," she said.
On June 13, a transition-advisory team will give Ackerman a preliminary report on the school district's operations. After being finalized, the report will be made public in August.
Studying safety issues will be a task force of district and city officials that will be created this month, Ackerman said. By August, recommendations will be presented to the reform commission for implementation during the coming school year.
Also big with Ackerman is creating and implementing something called a weighted student-funding formula, which she did while running the San Francisco and Washington, D.C., districts, and in Seattle, where she was a senior official.
Under such a formula, additional dollars would be spent on educating students with certain characteristics, such as those living in poverty, learning English or receiving special-education services.
The formula will take at least a year to create, Ackerman estimated, with parents, teachers, principals and others helping to determine the specifics.
"I can guarantee you if I looked at the system the way it is now and the way we allocate dollars, it's unfair and inequitable . . . We are actually robbing Peter to pay Paul," she said.
"My question is: Is your child Peter? The Peters are the ones that don't have the voice.
"My job is to make sure we give voice to everybody and that whatever we do, while we fight to get more money for everybody, that we're not making a bad situation worse."
Some observers are skeptical that such a funding system is workable in a school district that, despite a $2.3 billion operating budget, is underfunded by nearly $1 billion annually, according to a study commissioned by the state Board of Education.
"I believe you should just open up quality schools instead of trying to move funding around. . . . It really depends on the standards your're going to use to determine how money is spent, rather than how you divide it up," said Helen Gym, a founding member of Parents United for Public Education.
Along with a new funding formula, Ackerman said, a more thorough accountability system also must be in place to make sure students receive resources already in the budget, such as textbooks.
Ackerman said she will review all district contracts to determine if they are serving taxpayers well. In San Francisco she uncovered enough fraud to save the schools $60 million.
"There's a lot of them," she said of the school district's contracts. "I'm pretty positive we don't have good accountability systems in place. We have a very difficult time trying to track whether the services were delivered or not, and if they were, how well were they delivered and were we satisfied."
Ackerman said if she can save between $10 and $15 million from tightening up contracts, the money would be spent on supports for the lowest performing schools, those in Corrective Action II under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Ackerman, a St. Louis native who loves to dance to Motown music, has two grown sons who work in the computer industry and a fourth grandchild on the way. One of the pledges she made during last week's reform-commission meeting was to "give to other people's children what I would want for my very own."
She plans to meet with parents regularly, either at the district's administration building, or in their homes. She did that in San Francisco, where she was superintendent from 2000 to 2006.
All the changes that Ackerman plans to bring to Philadelphia may sound welcome to some, she said, but she wonders how long those folks will stay in her corner.
"When people say they want change, they don't often know what change looks like. Change is OK until it hits home - and it's going to hit home right away," she said with a laugh.