First day for the CEO of Philly schools

June 2, 2008 4:06:25 PM PDT
Arlene Ackerman has completed her first day on the job as the chief executive officer of the Philadelphia School District. The district has more than 167-thousand students, 281 schools - many of them in terrible physical shape. The district has more than 25,000 employees and a budget of almost $2.2-billion, which seems harder to balance every year.

The district's new number one had her pulse checked by some fifth graders and lunched with high schoolers. No complaints about the pizza but Ackerman got an earful about short comings, such as the restrooms.

Ackerman noted badly needed bathroom improvements, saying, "It needs fresh paint. It needs soap. It needs running water in all the pipes."

Most of the complaints came about the lack of basics.

Kennie Weaver from Overbrook High School said what needs to be done is to, 'provide more books. Make sure kids get into class on time. You know, more computers. Just make it a safer environment for everyone."

Ackerman signals she is going to make the system accountable and customer friendly. There's a story she arrived at the central office last month and asked someone a question and was curtly told that's not my job.

"It's a true story. It suggests to me we don't have, yet, in the school system a customer friendly attitude," said Ackerman.

Today on behalf of the district Ackerman accepted one of those oversized checks. To get more from Harrisburg she is going to have to open up the district's books to show how it's spending its existing billions. She vows she will follow the money to be certain it's not going to anyone's connected friends.

Ackerman says, "If it's not going to kids it's a problem. If it's going to the same people it's a problem. If it's going on contracts that are unbid without an open RFP it's a problem."

Ackerman says she finds herself in agreement with one of the district's most persistent critics, which would be City Controller Alan Butkovitz. She said she will open the books. She used the word "transparency". Transparency is sort of the Holy Grail for financial reformers. She said if you have transparency you cannot have back room deals.