Em­bat­tled su­per­in­ten­dent of D.C. schools

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY MATT SCHUDEL schudelm@wash­post.com

Ar­lene C. Ack­er­man, who had a stormy ten­ure as su­per­in­ten­dent of the em­bat­tled D.C. pub­lic schools from 1998 to 2000 and who later led the school sys­tems in San Fran­cisco and Philadel­phia, died Feb. 2 in Al­bu­querque, where she had lived for the past year. She was 66.

She had pan­cre­atic can­cer, her son An­thony An­tog­noli told the As­so­ci­ated Press.

Dr. Ack­er­man came to Washington in 1997 as an as­sis­tant to schools chief ex­ec­u­tive Julius W. Bec­ton Jr., at a time when much of the District’s government and fi­nances were over­seen by the fed­er­ally man­dated D.C. Fi­nan­cial Con­trol Board. She be­came the su­per­in­ten­dent in April 1998 and be­gan clean­ing house at once.

Dr. Ack­er­man in­her­ited a school sys­tem with a $62 mil­lion deficit and a record of chronic un­der­achieve­ment and mis­man­age­ment. In her first three months on the job, she dis­missed nearly 30 prin­ci­pals, sev­eral de­part­ment heads and 600 ad­min­is­tra­tive staff mem­bers, in­clud­ing most of the per­son­nel of­fice.

She re­al­ized how dys­func­tional the school sys­tem was when she filed a change of ad­dress only to learn that her own per­son­nel file was miss­ing.

“We have a school sys­tem where you have all of th­ese sys­tems that are bro­ken, and you have had no accountability,” she told The Washington Post in 1998. “Now we are in­sist­ing on it, and now ev­ery­body re­al­izes that.”

Dur­ing her two years lead­ing the D.C. schools, Dr. Ack­er­man was cred­ited with in­creas­ing stu­dent test scores and re­duc­ing ad­min­is­tra­tive costs from 15 per­cent of the bud­get to 6 per­cent. She also in­sti­tuted a new set of stan­dards for teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors.

She was praised for work­ing closely with par­ents and for ef­forts to im­prove schools in poorer neigh­bor­hoods, but she of­ten clashed with mem­bers of the D.C. Coun­cil, with the teach­ers union and with peo­ple who fa­vored the es­tab­lish­ment of more char­ter schools.

She was crit­i­cized for a se­cre­tive lead­er­ship style, for mi­cro­manag­ing and for a con­fronta­tional man­ner of deal­ing with the coun­cil, which ul­ti­mately con­trolled her bud­get. In 1999, Dr. Ack­er­man re­fused to draft a bud­get call­ing for a re­duc­tion in fund­ing for the pub­lic schools.

“In this city, if you could walk on water, you wouldn’t get credit for it,” she said in 1998. “They would say, ‘Ar­lene Ack­er­man can’t swim.’ ”

Dr. Ack­er­man re­signed in 2000 to take the top schools job in San Fran­cisco.

“She has laid a great foun­da­tion for the fu­ture,” Michael Casserly, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the non­profit Coun­cil of the Great City Schools, said at the time. “She has laid out very de­tailed stan­dards, moved more re­spon­si­bil­ity to the in­di­vid­ual school level [and] al­lo­cated the re­sources more fairly.”

Ar­lene Ran­dle was born Jan. 10, 1947, in St. Louis. She was part of the first in­te­grated class at a St. Louis high school and, in a 1998 in­ter­view with The Post, re­called that a white girl falsely ac­cused her of car­ry­ing a knife to school.

She said she had to en­ter a school ban­quet for honor stu­dents unac­com­pa­nied when a white male stu­dent re­fused to walk be­side her.

She grad­u­ated from Har­risS­towe State Univer­sity in St. Louis and re­ceived a master’s de­gree in ed­u­ca­tional ad­min­is­tra­tion from Washington Univer­sity in St. Louis. She also had master’s and doc­toral de­grees in ed­u­ca­tion from Har­vard Univer­sity.

Dr. Ack­er­man was a fifth-grade teacher early in her ca­reer be­fore be­com­ing a prin­ci­pal out­side St. Louis. She was an as­sis­tant su­per­in­ten­dent in Seat­tle be­fore coming to Washington.

Her two mar­riages ended in di­vorce. Sur­vivors in­clude two sons and sev­eral grand­chil­dren, but a com­plete list could not be con­firmed.

Dur­ing her six years in San Fran­cisco, Dr. Ack­er­man was cred­ited with turn­ing the school sys­tem into one of the best in a large Amer­i­can city. Af­ter teach­ing at Columbia for a year, she be­came the su­per­in­ten­dent in Philadel­phia in 2008.

Her ten­ure in Philadel­phia was marked by re­peated clashes with the mayor’s of­fice and state po­lit­i­cal of­fi­cials. Dr. Ack­er­man was crit­i­cized when she ap­peared to be deaf to com­plaints from Asian par­ents that their chil­dren were tar­geted for abuse and vi­o­lence by other stu­dents. She was also ac­cused of fa­voritism in dis­pens­ing con­tracts.

A Philadel­phia Inquirer colum­nist dubbed her “Queen Ar­lene” for her “con­trol­ling, aloof [and] im­pe­ri­ous” man­ner. By 2011, the schools in Philadel­phia had a deficit of more than $625 mil­lion, and Dr. Ack­er­man was forced from of­fice.

Af­ter she re­ceived a buy­out of $905,000, plus $83,000 in un­used va­ca­tion time, she fur­ther in­flamed Philadel­phia res­i­dents when she ap­plied for un­em­ploy­ment.


Dur­ing a 1998 visit to a sum­mer class at Ketcham Ele­men­tary, Su­per­in­ten­dent Ar­lene C. Ack­er­man reads a book with Ri­cardo Alexan­der, 9.

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