The Philadelphia School District's legal office is reviewing critical public comments that former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman made last week about a top district administrator to see whether they violate her $905,000 separation agreement.
Just three days after the announcement of the acrimonious end to her superintendency, Ackerman last Thursday ripped chief financial officer Michael Masch on WURD-AM (900) in talking about the district's $600-million-plus budget hole.
"People are blaming it on me," she said. "It's just ridiculous."
Ackerman said she was "pressured" to hire Masch and later sought to have him step down after getting "mumbo-jumbo talk" about district finances. Masch declined to comment.
Her separation agreement says she may not make public comments "or disseminate any private or confidential information" about the School Reform Commission or senior members of the district's administration that are "malicious, wanton, or reckless," or that are "reasonably foreseeable to injure their reputations."
District spokesman Fernando Gallard said Thursday that "the district is reviewing the comments made by Dr. Ackerman on WURD and other media outlets. It is our expectation that Dr. Ackerman will abide by the separation agreement."
Several sources said the comments could serve as ground for the commission to void the agreement, which includes $500,000 in public funds and $405,000 from anonymous donors channeled through the Philadelphia's Children First Fund.
District officials confirmed Thursday that Ackerman had not yet been paid. Under the agreement, she is owed the funds by Wednesday.
"Considering that there's $900,000-plus at stake, $500,000 of which is public funds, I would hope that the SRC would cancel the agreement - which is within their rights - and let's renegotiate the settlement with more public input," said Helen Gym, cofounder of Parents United for Public Education. "If there's a chance for them to fix it, now is the time."
Zack Stalberg, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, a nonprofit government watchdog group, said he also viewed the comments as a potential violation.
"It's the SRC's responsibility to pursue this and determine whether she's violated the terms of her separation agreement," he said. "If she has, then I don't think she's entitled to the money."
Ackerman's lawyer, Dean Weitzman, did not return calls or reply to e-mail.
Calls for the commission to reexamine the agreement come as state Auditor General Jack Wagner notified the district by letter Thursday that his office was auditing the buyout agreement. Among the objectives will be to uncover the identities of the donors, Wagner's spokesman said. Wagner's office also is auditing superintendent buyouts in three other districts - Allentown, Gettysburg, and Central Dauphin.
The district looked into other ways to end Ackerman's tenure, including having the SRC abrogate her contract because of the financial crisis or firing her for cause. Both courses could have led to litigation.
District officials and those in Mayor Nutter's administration have remained mum on who pledged the funds to help end Ackerman's three-year tenure, and there has also been speculation that one or more of the donors may have backed out in recent days as public scrutiny of the deal intensified.
District officials confirmed Thursday that the district had not received the $405,000 from the fund.
Calls to fund executive director Jeanne-Marie Hagan and lawyer Sheldon Bonovitz, the fund chairman, were not returned. Both SRC Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr., a law partner of Bonovitz's, and interim Superintendent Leroy Nunery II serve on the board. Until recently, the group's website also listed Ackerman as a board member.
Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald declined to comment on the identities of the donors or about Nutter's position on whether the donors should be made public.
Last week, Nutter defended using private donors: "If a person wishes to make a donation to a legitimate legal entity and asks for anonymity, then I think in that situation the preference of that particular donor has to be respected."
State Rep. Ron Waters, chairman of Pennsylvania's Legislative Black Caucus and a supporter of Ackerman, said the donors' identities should be known.
"We don't know who these donors are, or if they have a special interest," he said. "If there's nothing wrong with what they did, there should be no problem telling who they are."
The identities of the donors is the best-kept secret in town, he said.
"It's a new form of 'no snitching,' " he said.
If the donations do not come through, the district is on the hook for the $405,000, officials say. The severance agreement does not stipulate that payment hinges on the donations' being received.
The district saved $440,000 when it removed three of Ackerman's communications officers in the aftermath of her departure. She complained that they were escorted from school headquarters like "criminals."
Ackerman's media offensive began last week, first in an article in Education Week, then in interviews on Fox 29 and WURD, Philadelphia's black-oriented talk-radio station.
"I never understood the numbers that I was given by my CFO," Ackerman said of Masch. "We would get documents at the end, right before a board meeting or the night before. There was never any time for real dialogue."
She said her decision to ask Masch to step down was "probably the last part of my undoing."
Phil Goldsmith, a former interim CEO of the district, said the blame lay with Ackerman. The SRC, he said, should have terminated her for "financial mismanagement," along with poor leadership and her mishandling of racial attacks at South Philadelphia High School.
"She was the top person there," Goldsmith said. "If she wanted his resignation, why didn't she just terminate him?"
On WURD, Ackerman said, "It just couldn't happen."
Goldsmith said he doubted the SRC would do anything about Ackerman's comments concerning Masch.
"Who knows," he said, "maybe they'll increase her severance."
SRC members did not return calls for comment.
Waters defended Ackerman's right to comment on Masch: "She only reiterated something that was already public knowledge."