The anonymous donors who pledged to pay part of the costs for Arlene Ackerman's buyout package have withdrawn their support, leaving the Philadelphia school district shouldering the entire $905,000 cost.
When Ackerman and the district's School Reform Commission parted ways last month, the agreement announced then was that the district would pay $500,000 and donors would pay $405,000 into the Philadelphia's Children First Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides grants to the school district. Funneling the money through the nonprofit would allow the donors to remain anonymous, the district maintained.
"I wanted to make sure there was as minimal as possible public exposure," said Mayor Michael Nutter at a press conference after Ackerman's resignation Aug. 24. He said he "made a few calls" to get private donors to support the buyout fund.
But the arrangement immediately prompted suspicion. "From our standpoint, it's just not good policy to have private individuals bailing out the government. The public has the right to know if there are any favors being exchanged here," said Zack Stalberg, the president and chief executive officer of the Committee of Seventy, in an interview with Education Week after the agreement was announced. The Committee is a Philadelphia good-government advocacy group.
Jack Wagner, the Pennsylvania state auditor, pledged to audit Ackerman's buyout agreement and others that had been approved in other districts in the state.
The furor prompted the donors who had originally pledged their support to withdraw their contributions, according to a statement from the Philadelphia school system:
From the start, the School Reform Commission sought to keep the public cost of this agreement to a minimum. But the public concerns about the use of anonymous private donations led almost all donors to withdraw their pledges to contribute to the Philadelphia's Children First Fund. The SRC, accordingly, asked the Philadelphia Children's First Fund to return any donations it has received in connection with our request of it to accept funds on behalf of the district for this purpose.
As a result, the payment to Dr. Ackerman does not include payments from anonymous private donors. Instead, all funds to Dr. Ackerman are public dollars from the Philadelphia School District.
In a statement, Stalberg said "It's good that the public doesn't have to worry who is anonymously underwriting this deal and why." But, he added, "Philadelphia has been tarnished by a controversy that stems from a secret deal that should never have been attempted in the first place."
The district should now consider whether the entire agreement should be nullified, Stalberg said. The buyout agreement included a clause that neither side—Ackerman or the School Reform Committee—are allowed to disparage the other. But Ackerman has given several interviews since her resignation, including one where she offered critical comments about the district's chief financial officer.
According to the Philadelphia School Notebook blog, however, the district has decided not to pursue that option. The article quotes a district insider as saying "We just want her to go away."