Against all enemies
Ackerman's aversion to debate is making it harder for the school district to grapple with serious issues.

By Tali Woodward and Steven T. Jones

SUPT. ARLENE Ackerman's long pattern of treating those who disagree with her as enemies has destroyed her relationships with key schools stakeholders and seriously restricted the district's ability to function.

Ackerman's battles with the elected San Francisco Board of Education have grabbed headlines for years, but this year she has simply stopped coming to many meetings, offering her recommendations on complicated and controversial issues, or engaging in more than cursory conversations with board members.

Lesser known but equally important is the devolution of her relationships with the teachers union, student groups like the Student Advisory Council, the Board of Supervisors, and the media (and not just the Bay Guardian, which Ackerman announced last week she would stop talking to).

At the same time, Ackerman has strengthened her ties to groups that have overtly conservative political agendas, from SFSOS to the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, which have become proxies in her political battles: staging press conferences and rallies on her behalf, blasting Ackerman's opponents in interviews and e-mail blitzes, and pumping up the indignation and turnout at public meetings.

Lately, the situation has come to a head in the form of this striking dichotomy: Ackerman works well with conservative political groups that want to influence school policy but not with the teachers who do the day-to-day work of educating the students, or the school board members elected by the people to supervise her.

Ackerman has done many good things since taking over a district plagued by corruption and neglect. She secured multimillion-dollar settlements from contractors who had defrauded the district, spearheaded campaigns to win new bond money and funding from the city, and improved student test scores.

In other words, she cleaned house and firmly cast her imprint on the San Francisco Unified School District. As a result, Ackerman won over many parents and others who expect excellence from the schools. Yet for all her successes in the portion of her job that entails giving orders and commanding respect, Ackerman has a deplorable history of building mutually respectful relationships or incorporating the views of others into her plans.

Instead, Ackerman simply shuts down in the face of dissent – openly challenging the motives of those with whom she disagrees and cutting off the dialogue. Just consider her relationship with United Educators of San Francisco, the union that represents all of the city's public school teachers.

It's a long-standing practice in many school districts for the president of the teachers union to meet regularly with the superintendent for a casual and free-ranging discussion. In San Francisco, those meetings have usually happened each month. Soon after current UESF president Dennis Kelly took office in June 2003, he and some other union honchos met for the first time with Ackerman. According to Kelly they were discussing a particular employee rule when Ackerman said, "You created the adversarial relationship."

"I was stunned," Kelly told us. "I asked, 'How did we do that?' " Ackerman then said that when Kelly and his slate ran for union leadership posts, they ran against her personally. Kelly said he did his best to convince her that he never targeted her and that he wanted them to work together.

But union leaders say the relationship has only gotten worse. Ackerman and Kelly met for about a year, though the meetings were inconsistent. Then, in August 2004, SFUSD director of labor relations Tom Ruiz told Kelly, "If we wanted to meet with the administration, we would meet with him."

A few months later, Kelly says, he ran into former San Francisco schools superintendent Ramon Cortines at an event. When Kelly told him Ackerman hadn't been meeting with the union, Cortines agreed to help broker a truce. A meeting was set for Jan. 11 at 8 a.m.

After showing up more than an hour late, Ackerman told Kelly that "she felt we'd shown her disrespect.... I said, please give me an example, because we don't intend to show disrespect," he told us. "We don't necessarily agree on things, but we don't intend to show disrespect.... And I told her that we did not appreciate always being the target of attacks that were racially based."

Kelly was referring to a favored tactic of Ackerman's supporters, one that was practiced and perfected by former mayor Willie Brown, in which political groups allied with downtown financial interests inject accusations of racism into debates on seemingly unrelated topics. It is a tactic that can quickly derail substantive discussions.

"It's very harmful, and it achieves a gridlock that makes me suspicious of the people bringing it up," Sup. Tom Ammiano said of the tactic, which he endured as a supervisor, during his runs for mayor, and as a school board member.

Regarding the growing division between Ackerman and the school board, the union, and other stakeholders, Ammiano told us, "It has now devolved and deteriorated to the point where something has to give."

After Kelly spoke frankly with Ackerman about their relationship, Ackerman didn't show at a second meeting, Kelly said. Plans for a third fell apart. Cortines didn't want to talk about the specifics of these meetings, but he said he would be more than happy to arrange another if both parties were interested. He was also adamant that a superintendent should be in dialogue with the teachers union.

"Over the years, when I've been superintendent in various places, there were some tense moments. But I never allowed the conversation to cease," Cortines said. "If you want to improve schools, you need the teachers."

UESF vice president Linda Plack pointed out, "As teachers, we really care about student achievement. We have similar goals [to those Ackerman states]." Later she said, "I don't think she wants to understand how damaging her behavior is to the relationship. She wants to see it one way."

Ackerman's relationship with the Bay Guardian has apparently now ended in a similar fashion. As with UESF, this newspaper's relationship with Ackerman has always been a little tense, partly because we took issue with her policy requiring all district employees to get Ackerman's approval before talking to the media.

But after we did back-to-back stories in the past month reporting controversial statements Ackerman and her staff had made to SFSOS (see "Divide and Conquer," 5/25/05) and student leaders (see "Learning about Politics," 6/15/05) members, Ackerman secretary Tullah Carter responded to our interview request for this story by saying, "She said that she's not going to be granting any more interviews to the Bay Guardian."

Ackerman may have stopped talking with the Bay Guardian, the union, school board members, various political interest groups, and even members of the Board of Supervisors, but she still talks at them through political proxies like SFSOS's Wade Randlett (who would not comment for this story) or the Chamber of Commerce's Lee Blitch – which has been her preferred means of communication.

Ackerman has always had a close relationship with the business community, whose support she positively gushed over at SFSOS's annual luncheon on May 17. But she has strengthened and leaned on those ties all the more as her other relationships have deteriorated over the past two years.

When rumors that Ackerman would likely leave San Francisco first peaked, in September 2003, she called a press conference to counter them. Joining Ackerman at the podium was Blitch, creating a chorus that has sought to blame all discord in the district on the board, the media, progressives ... anybody but Ackerman.

UESF officials said that when they have raised questions about policies this administration is pursuing, they've been targeted by smear campaigns engineered by Randlett and others. Early last year, after Kelly publicly asked questions about Ackerman's Dream Schools initiative, the union was the object of one of SFSOS's e-mail blasts. Afterward, Kelly arranged a meeting with Randlett to discuss their differences.

"He said it was his job to protect the superintendent – at least through the November election," Kelly told us. And when Kelly again posed questions about Dream Schools at a board meeting, Randlett was there just minutes later. "He came down to tell us there was going to be trouble if we were attacking the superintendent. It was like being on the school yard again."

When asked why he thinks Randlett and others are frustrated with UESF, Kelly said, "I gather if you are in any way not being entirely subservient – well, I mean really it comes down to asking questions. When we went and talked [at the meeting], it was about problems with the program, not the superintendent."

For a long time, the strategy seemed to work. Ackerman had the support of a narrow majority on the school board and political support for pushing through reforms despite concerns from the union and community members. And it was easy for the media to blame the minority of vocal lefties on the school board for any discord.

"It's unfortunate that the media has given her a lot of cover," said school board member Mark Sanchez, Ackerman's most vocal critic.

After Ackerman board ally Heather Hiles lost her seat last fall, the lame duck board called an emergency meeting during which it approved a new contract for Ackerman on a 4-3 vote.

The new contract included an annual raise of $26,000, putting her salary at $250,000, among the highest in the country for school district superintendents. Even more provocative was the $375,000 severance package she would get even if she quit, which many saw as both pricey and designed to insulate her from the new board majority. Ackerman used the opportunity to stop talking to many board members and even stop attending many of the board's meetings.

New board president Eric Mar told us, "I've been trying to set a meeting with her for several weeks, and it hasn't come together. I've been making an effort to try to meet with her regularly. I don't think it's reciprocal."

Sarah Lipson has been the most soft-spoken of Ackerman's critics on the school board. For some time now, she's been the one who has been able to meet with the superintendent, the one who has tried to keep lines of communication open.

But over the past four months, Ackerman has cut off her regular monthly meeting with Lipson. "She's canceled every meeting without rescheduling," Lipson told us.

"We've always had disagreements, but we've always managed to work it out," Lipson continued. "Now she doesn't even look at me. It's worse than it's ever been."

Norman Yee, a moderate new addition to the school board, is restrained in his criticism of Ackerman but acknowledges observing many of the personal traits that make her hard to work with.

"I feel like we should have good relationships to be a functional organization. Could my relationship with the superintendent be better? Yes," he told us. Yee said he tries to keep his conversations with Ackerman short and to the point to avoid conflicts. "When I have a dialogue with her, I try to keep it real calm and just let her know how I feel about something without starting a big discussion."

He also said her frequent absences from school board meetings and her new approach of withholding recommendations on controversial items make it hard for the board to do its job, particularly as the district wrestles with a $22 million budget shortfall that is forcing school closures.

"Whatever her reasons are, it's really hard when she doesn't feel comfortable enough to even say, 'These are my recommendations.'" Yee said.

Media accounts of Ackerman's time as superintendent in Washington, DC, are eerily similar, telling a tale of a superintendent at war with her school board, hostile to the media, working the angles to get a lucrative contract with a no-fire clause, and aloof when dealing with parent groups and other district stakeholders.

"She's the ultimate in imperious administration," Marc Fisher, a Washington Post columnist who wrote about Ackerman's time in DC, told us in an e-mail. "Ackerman was oblivious to the political realities of the city and had almost no allies."

The tables continued to turn against Ackerman recently when a parent discovered an Education Code provision that seems to require superintendent contracts to be debated and approved at regularly scheduled meetings, not the kind of short-notice special meeting that spawned Ackerman's contract.

Attorneys Whitney Leigh and Matt Gonzalez filed a lawsuit June 22 seeking to invalidate the contract and force a new vote by the school board, a goal that was supported by the Student Advisory Council despite heavy-handed lobbying by the Ackerman administration.

The series of events has put Ackerman and her allies on the defensive for a change – and placed on public display some of the superintendent's less endearing traits.

Rory Brown and Tim Redmond contributed to this story.

E-mail Tali Woodward and Steven T. Jones.