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Arlene C. Ackerman, former D.C. schools chief, dies at 66

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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 almost 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 city 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 over 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 Harris-Stowe 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 making the school system one of the best in a large American city. After teaching at Columbia, 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.

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