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Schools' human resources official was 'allowed to resign,' Phila. district says

Estelle G. Matthews, the Philadelphia School District's former top human resources official, was "allowed to resign," district officials said Friday.

Estelle G. Matthews, the Philadelphia School District's former top human resources official, was "allowed to resign," district officials said Friday.

In an e-mail sent to reporters Friday evening, Matthews said she was "deeply saddened and disappointed by the misrepresentation of facts surrounding my service and decision to resign from the position of Chief of Talent & Development for the Philadelphia School District."

She said she would cooperate with district investigations and was confident the inquiries would find she had done nothing wrong.

Matthews' resignation, which came amid allegations of nepotism and awarding pay raises to some individuals while the district was laying off others, took effect Wednesday, district spokesman Fernando Gallard said Friday.

Matthews was escorted from the school administration building at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Gallard said she met earlier that day with Acting Superintendent Leroy D. Nunery 2d.

In her e-mail, Matthews said: "Since 2008, it has been my responsibility to direct the district's personnel, training and labor relations activities and have done so efficiently and with integrity, providing opportunities for qualified and deserving staff to be recognized and rewarded for their efforts. These personnel decisions were carried out according to rigid policy standards and with consideration to ongoing budget constraints.

"It is unfortunate that the Philadelphia media did not mention that the arduous process of identifying, recruiting, recognizing and rewarding staff is done so in partnership with the five-member School Reform Commission. Nonetheless, it is my intention to continue to fully cooperate with the investigation and believe it will reveal that there were no inappropriate or independent actions or decisions made at my behest.

"During my tenure at the district, there were educators and administration alike that supported the shared goal of taking the district to a different level of success in operations and outcomes. My focus has always been on the needs of the children. I look forward to exploring opportunities that will allow me to continue making significant contributions in the field and in the community."

On Thursday, when news broke of Matthews' departure, Gallard said he could not confirm reports she had stepped down. District officials, he said, would be able to clarify her employment status Friday.

As a former district employee, Matthews is entitled to be paid for unused vacation days, Gallard said. He was not sure whether she was entitled to file for unemployment.

The abrupt exit of Matthews - a close friend of former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman - happened after The Inquirer asked questions about individual raises of as much as $25,000. It also followed a draft report the district's inspector general gave the School Reform Commission recently from an internal investigation that found several questionable pay increases totaling more than $80,000 to Matthews' friends and their relatives.

There were also allegations that Matthews' son was hired and held district jobs although he lacked qualifications.

The controversial pay raises - ranging from $4,500 to $25,000 - were initiated by Matthews and granted in July and September, even though the district was shedding 3,800 jobs to help close a $629 million funding gap.

On Friday, The Inquirer had expected to receive the final pieces of information from the district about seven specific raises in response to a request filed Oct. 27 under the state's Right-to-Know Law.

Gallard said Friday the district could not provide that information because the administration was continuing to review the questioned raises and related issues.

The inquiry by the district administration is being led by the law department and is in addition to the inspector general's investigation.

Current and former district employees have alleged that Matthews gave preferential treatment to her friends and their relatives and to Ackerman allies. Most of the questioned raises were for nonunion staff in the human resources department, which Matthews supervised.

Gallard has confirmed that a policy the SRC adopted Nov. 23 requiring all promotions and salary changes to be approved by a new committee was in response to district officials' concerns about recent raises.

Matthews was a senior vice president of human resources at what was then Wachovia Bank from 2005 to 2008. She was hired by the School District in December 2008.

Her annual district salary was $185,400.

Gallard said Donald Rickford, deputy for operations improvement, who had been based in the superintendent's office, had been named acting chief talent development officer.

Rickford, a former finance officer for the Washington schools, was brought to Philadelphia as a consultant in 2010 by Ackerman. She had worked with him in Washington when she was superintendent there.

Rickford was hired by the Philadelphia district in January and is paid $144,200. Gallard said Rickford would not receive a raise for the new post.