Philadelphia Schools Chief Buyout Raises Transparency, Salary Concerns

Published September 26, 2011

The Philadelphia School District isn’t saying much about a $988,000 buyout it gave former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman two weeks before classes started this fall.

Ackerman will be paid for two of the three remaining years on her contract after negotiating a deal requiring the district to divide her third year’s salary among the city’s six Promise Academies, turnaround schools filled with 2,700 of the city’s most disadvantaged students. She was contractually entitled to $1.5 million in severance, but she accepted less in light of the city’s $664 million budget gap this year and in exchange for keeping the Academies funded.

Strong Charters Proponent
Ackerman had made creating the Promise Academies a top priority, planned to expand their number to 16, and pushed for charter school operators to run seven other failing city schools. The city’s largest teachers union largely opposed her policies. Under her leadership, which began in 2008, Philadelphia students’ standardized test scores continued a nine-year pattern of rising each year.

“There was no cause—no cause—to let me go,” Ackerman said.

Her base salary of $348,140 beat New York City’s and Chicago’s superintendents. Philadelphia enrolls 198,000 students, half as many as Chicago and less than one-fifth the New York City total. Ackerman also earned about twice as much as Philadelphia’s mayor.

The city’s School Reform Commission (or SRC, the equivalent of a school board) approved the buyout six months after approving a one-year extension on her contract, refusing to explain either decision.

State Audit Forthcoming
Pennsylvania state Auditor General Jack Wagner has notified several school districts his department will audit provisions of their recent superintendent contract buyouts to determine whether districts adequately explained why they offered buyouts and whether the agreements “were transparent and without confidentiality clauses so taxpayers [knew] the buyout occurred.”

Recent superintendent buyouts in three Allegheny County districts have cost $945,000.

“Superintendent severance packages are questionable not only because they appear to waste money, but because they often lack transparency,” Wagner said.

‘Lack of Transparency’
“A lack of transparency is one of the many issues with school boards in Philadelphia,” said Elizabeth Stelle, a policy analyst at the Pennsylvania-based Commonwealth Foundation. “Some school districts put contracts online, but many are only available through a right-to-know request. Additional compensation like bonuses may or may not be public knowledge.”

Ackerman’s contract stipulated her performance evaluations would remain secret. Last year, the Commonwealth Foundation took Ackerman to task for receiving a $65,000 bonus without meeting criteria the district established, so no one really knows how the board made its decision, Stelle said.

“Transparency could help build a connection between actual performance and compensation,” she said.

The district also declined to identify anonymous sources who initially pledged $405,000 to Ackerman’s buyout. Wagner’s office said it planned to release the identities of these individuals. The donors consequently pulled out, leaving taxpayers to pick up the entire tab so the district could fulfill its contract obligations.

Ackerman’s separation agreement contributes to the secrecy by prohibiting her from disparaging the school board or disclosing confidential information.

Stuck Between Rocks?
Superintendents say they often are caught in untenable situations, such as battles between school boards and the community, contract negotiations with unions, or economic distress resulting in trimming programs, teacher layoffs, or tax hikes.  

“That’s why superintendents need to get paid adequately,” said University of Florida economics professor Larry Kenny. “Still, $905,000 does seem excessive for a buyout with taxpayer dollars.”

Ackerman’s situation may be similar to those of corporation CEOs, who often cannot find a job to support themselves after being forced out, Kenny noted. Ackerman has accepted some of the toughest administrative positions in the country, including leading school districts in San Francisco and Washington, DC.

Fiascos such as Philadelphia’s highlight the need for taxpayer-paid superintendent contracts to be more “performance based,” Kenny said. “Oftentimes, these contracts don’t provide the appropriate incentives that result in a superintendent working harder and bringing about a better, more efficient school district.”

Image by Alex Proimos.