The egregious and the erroneous

Opinion August 24, 2011 0 Comments

By now just about anyone within a 25-mile radius of the tri-state area is aware that Arlene Ackerman, superintendent of the Philadelphia School District since 2008, has accepted a $905,000 buyout of her contract to leave the district.

The deal, which brings together $500,000 from the district’s coffers and another $405,000 from anonymous private donations funneled through a nonprofit, sends Ackerman packing after a summer of public sparring.

Astonishingly, the $905,000 is still less than the $1.3-1.5 million Ackerman initially sought to end her tenure three years early. With an annual base salary of $348,140 Ackerman’s buyout should represent the minimum she would have earned had she stayed, not accounting for bonuses and other incentives.

Her lawyer, however, was quick to point out that she agreed to forgo her final year’s salary, deferring it to funds for Promise Academies. It’s hard to imagine that the public will see that as a sign of generosity when Ackerman has earned more than $1 million for three years work in a district that is facing a $650 million deficit.

The inequity represented by Ackerman’s million-dollar buyout in a district that spends just $11,078 per student is egregious. The current enrollment estimate is 184,560 students, which means the total amount of money spent on the district’s children just above $2 billion.

Philadelphia is the eighth largest school district in the nation with a total annual budget of roughly $2.8 billion. And yet Ackerman is leaving, wealthy and embattled, because of a political dispute with the Mayor and the School Reform Commission.

As Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell said in the Inquirer on Tuesday, Aug. 23, “She may have been an educator, but she’s in a political environment, and anyone in her position has to accept that.”

Is that the problem, Councilwoman? According to reports, Ackerman’s relationship with Mayor Nutter soured when she announced a plan to save all-day kindergarten without alerting him first. At the time she was quoted as saying, “Is it a crime to stand up for children instead of stooping down into the political sandbox and selling our children for a politicians’ victory?”

What is frustrating is watching these civic leaders play ideological volleyball, constantly switching sides and then diving undercover when called on the carpet.

It is especially frustrating when our collective short-term memory fails us, as it often does, and we forget that while the players may change, the problems rarely do.

When Paul Vallas left the same post after his five-year stint preceding Ackerman, Susan Snyder wrote in an April 12, 2007, Inquirer article, “Vallas to leave city schools post”:

“Tensions among Vallas and the School Reform Commission and Mayor Street have flared in recent months, after his disclosure in October that the district’s $2.04 billion budget had a $73.3 million deficit and faced large cuts for next year to balance the spending plan. As a result, the commission took some spending authority away from Vallas and put it in the hands of its own fiscal monitors.”

Sound familiar? It should. Vallas did what he could and was widely praised for the improvements he made, and widely criticized for not doing more, which is why the rationale for Ackerman’s ousting is erroneous.

Under Ackerman’s leadership graduation rates improved, math and reading test scores improved and violent incidents in schools declined 29 percent.

Almost a million dollars is too much money for anyone to take from an ailing school system, where children should, as Ackerman said, be the top priority, but paying her to leave to save political face is nothing to hail as an achievement either.

Jennifer Katz

 

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