Locked in a battle for her job, Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman has been marginalized as the day-to-day leader of the Philadelphia School District, her supporters said Wednesday.
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.) - who blasted the School Reform Commission at a dramatic public meeting - said Ackerman told him that district decisions were being made without her, and that officials were issuing directives to her staff without her consent.
Ackerman was conspicuously absent from the meeting.
"I think there's a strong desire by the members of the SRC for her no longer to be here," Williams told reporters. "I think that they are conducting themselves in ways that send that message, including today."
Williams, an Ackerman booster, said he had questions about the SRC's "decision-making process and how they are conducting themselves with the superintendent." He described the battle over Ackerman as a "food fight amongst adults" and said that under her leadership, the district had made unprecedented academic gains.
He demanded a meeting between the SRC and the Senate Education Committee, said he no longer supported the current governance structure of the district, and made clear he would work to abolish the SRC, created by the state when it took over the district in 2001.
Williams also called on Mayor Nutter to clarify his position on the superintendent. Activist Pamela Williams, who is unrelated to the senator, attended a meeting with the superintendent Tuesday night and said Nutter and the SRC were engineering Ackerman's ouster.
"The mayor is not pushing anybody out," Mark McDonald, Nutter's spokesman, said Wednesday. "The superintendent works for the SRC, and the mayor doesn't discuss personnel matters related to other agencies."
Nutter voiced strong support for Ackerman in the past, but has been silent in recent months.
A district spokeswoman, commenting on Ackerman's absence, said she was ill. Answering a direct question from Sen. Williams about the superintendent's whereabouts, SRC Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. said she "chose not to be here."
Of Ackerman's absence, Sen. Williams said, "I don't think it's because she chose not to be here. I frankly have other information." He declined to elaborate.
Archie opened the meeting by reading a statement that said Ackerman "is and continues to be the superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia." He said the SRC would continue to work with her but would not speculate about her future employment.
But after Sen. Williams suggested that the SRC told Ackerman not to show up at the meeting and members of the public accused Archie of lying, neither Archie nor other members of the SRC would comment.
Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery sat in Ackerman's usual seat, offering opening remarks and urging those in attendance to "refocus our collective energies and efforts on having a 10th straight year of academic gains."
School is set to begin for 155,000 students in less than a month.
Initially, 11 new Promise Academies - district schools overhauled with extra resources and a longer day and year - were to open in September. Officials announced last week that because of a budget gap of more than $650 million, only three new Promise Academies would open.
The schools are Ackerman's signature initiative, and Sen. Williams said Wednesday that the decision to cut eight Promise Academies was made without her.
He said "special interests" pressured the SRC to ax the Promise Academies.
"There were interested parties who were not in favor of those Promise Academies' being opened, and they weighed in and won," Williams said.
Pressed, the senator named the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
"There were teachers who were more senior who didn't like [Promise Academies] because they didn't have the right to use their seniority as a way to get to that extra money," Williams said.
Promise Academy teachers are paid a premium for working extra time. The district wants to exempt Promise Academy teachers from layoffs, a move the union is attempting to block. An arbitrator's decision is expected on the matter any day.
Amid speculation that the SRC has been negotiating a buyout with Ackerman for six weeks, a number of speakers lashed out at the commission for its treatment of the superintendent and its decision to cut Promise Academies.
"Stop doing backdoor stuff," Pamela Williams, the activist, said. "Come out front and do the right thing. . . . If you don't do it right, I'm going to call in the troops."
She said Promise Academies are desperately needed in communities where schools and young people have struggled for generations.
If the district doesn't fund them, she said, "we will be another London. Our children will begin to revolt. They're already mad. They're already angry."
Sen. Williams said Ackerman told him there was money for six more Promise Academies.
"It was in the budget," he said. "She went through it and found it. That's from her."
Responding to a growing anger toward the SRC, an audience member got in the last word after Archie gaveled the meeting closed.
"This is just the beginning!" activist Emmanuel Bussie shouted as the room emptied. "This is just the beginning of all the yelling."