When then-Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman found herself under pressure over a contract to run Martin Luther King High as a charter school, she said, she turned to Mayor Nutter for help.
Did she get it? "No," Ackerman said in an exclusive interview Thursday, asserting that the mayor did not want to get involved.
She said she made the appeal after she discovered that her boss, School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr., went behind her back to confer with her deputy and acting successor, Leroy Nunery II, about the contract. Nunery, at Archie's request, set up a private meeting with State Rep. Dwight Evans, at which Evans is said to have pressured the charter operator who won the contract to back out.
"I never understood why that happened," Ackerman said. "And I didn't understand why Lee didn't get up and walk out. I asked him that. He said he just didn't know what to do, so he just sat there. . . . I said to stay there was a mistake."
Nunery declined to address Ackerman's claim, saying he "is fully focused on running the district." Mark McDonald, Nutter's spokesman, said that the mayor was not available for comment and that he could not address Ackerman's assertion that she had futilely asked Nutter for help.
The King affair, which played out in mid-March and April, was a brutal and eye-opening example of Philadelphia politics for Ackerman, who said she had little knowledge of how hardball the antics could be - far worse, she said, than she had experienced in her previous two superintendent jobs, in San Francisco and Washington.
She spoke of Philadelphia's being divided into political "camps."
"What I wanted to make sure was that I was in no camp," she said. In a brief conversation Tuesday, she called the local political situation "the Philadelphia mess."
The politics were bared in a blistering report released Thursday by Nutter's chief integrity officer, Joan Markman. Both Archie and Evans issued statements disputing the report's findings, with Evans expressing anger over what he said was his portrayal as a "puppet master" who could "make people dance."
Ackerman said she gradually learned that Evans - who was pushing hard for the contract for Foundations Inc., a firm to which he has long-standing ties - was the childhood friend and close associate of lobbyist Melonease Shaw, whom the commission paid to introduce her to Philadelphia when she was hired in 2008.
Shaw, who earned $268,997 in district contracts during Ackerman's tenure as a consultant on government relations and business development, also listed Foundations as a client on the website of her company, Maven Inc.
In early March, before the King contract was voted on, the report said, Shaw set up a meeting between Ackerman and Evans at Relish, a West Oak Lane restaurant that was developed by a community group Evans founded and that benefited from a public loan and grant of more than $1 million. Evans frequently uses it for news conferences and political events.
At the meeting, Evans told Ackerman that he wanted to purchase King, which is in East Germantown, and find an outside operator to run it.
Shaw said she could not recall that specific instance but acknowledged that she, Ackerman, and Evans met frequently at Relish for business and social occasions.
When Ackerman snubbed Evans' demand that King be turned over to Foundations, she and a member of her staff received phone calls from Shaw "suggesting that Evans could hurt her career if she did not steer the MLK contract to Foundations," according to a footnote in the Markman report.
While Ackerman's staff member corroborated the account, Shaw denied it, according to the report. Ackerman and Shaw agreed on one thing, according to the report: They no longer have "a positive working relationship."
Ackerman said in the interview that it was after the King controversy that she began to feel she was being pushed out by Archie and Nutter.
"It was the beginning of the end for me," she said. "That set my departure in motion.
"But I was not going to play the Philadelphia politics. Thank God, I didn't play the politics."
The Markman report corroborates Ackerman's account of the events surrounding the King contract, which ultimately went to neither Foundations nor the firm that a parents' advisory group selected - Mosaica. Ackerman backed the parent advisory group's choice and the process that led to the selection.
Zack Stalberg, chief executive of the political-watchdog group Committee of Seventy and a frequent critic of Ackerman, agreed that she was not at fault in the King debacle.
"There are a lot of negative things to say about Arlene Ackerman, but this doesn't seem to be one of them," he said. "She seems to be supported in her report, and it gives credence to her claim that she was pushed out, presumably by Evans for political reasons."
In her first interview with The Inquirer since leaving the district last month, Ackerman blasted Nutter for failing to release the Markman report until this week. Archie stepped down Monday amid praise from Nunery, who spoke of Archie's leadership of the SRC as marked by "uncommon dedication and always with dignity."
Ackerman said she talked to Markman before schools closed for the summer and the report was almost done then.
"I actually left the district thinking it was never going to be released," she said.
When she asked Nutter for help, he told her Archie was his appointee on the commission and he wasn't going to get involved. Now, Nutter seems to want to be heavily involved in the district, Ackerman said.
"Help me understand what that means," she said.
McDonald, Nutter's spokesman, took exception to Ackerman's claims. He said that once the controversy over King erupted in April, the mayor directed Markman to conduct a fact-finding review and issue a report.
"The mayor did take action to the extent that he put the resources of his chief integrity officer into this," McDonald said. As for the release of the report, McDonald said Nutter had received a preliminary briefing in August and had reviewed the full report over the past weekend and Monday.
Since late June, when Ackerman indicated she wanted to leave the district, McDonald said, the educational topic that preoccupied the mayor's attention was her departure. She left in August after receiving a $905,000 severance package.
Ackerman said it took her months to realize how close Shaw was to Evans.
School District records show that more than a third of all Ackerman's local expense-account meals were with Shaw. The two dined two dozen times, often at Devon, a restaurant in Rittenhouse Square. The records don't mention the Relish meals.
Ackerman didn't see the Evans-Shaw relationship as a problem at first, but then pressure began to build, she said.
Archie and Evans are also close friends, and Evans is a client of Archie's firm, Duane Morris, according to the report.
A particularly uncomfortable encounter occurred one Saturday in April when Archie summoned her to his law office so that Evans could "berate" her about not supporting Foundations. She was so upset she told another School Reform Commission member that she didn't want to attend the meeting, according to the report.
Around the time of the meeting, Ackerman said, a friend warned her that information about her delinquent taxes would be leaked if she didn't give in to Evans' demands, according to the report. On April 12, three days after the meeting at the law firm, Fox 29 news reported that Ackerman owed over $20,0000 to the IRS. The Inquirer subsequently reported that she had incurred additional tax liens of $106,000.
Markman, however, said in her report that she could not confirm a connection between the reported threat and the Fox story.
During the interview, Ackerman asked that her whereabouts not be disclosed because she is fearful of how people might react to the Markman report.
Ackerman said the King controversy was the most upsetting episode she encountered while superintendent, although there were other instances in which she faced political pressure. She declined to elaborate on those instances.
"I just thank God every day that I survived it," she said. "I'm at peace with my role as superintendent. I am an honorable person. I came to the city with integrity and I'm leaving with my head held high, even though I don't have the job."