Phil Goldsmith: $338K? Ackerman and SRC tone-deaf to Phila. taxpayers' financial plight

Superintendent of Schools Arlene Ackerman
Superintendent of Schools Arlene Ackerman
Posted: July 29, 2010

THIS MONTH, School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has been bringing in high-priced administrators and shuffling her administrative team more than Charlie Manuel has changed the Phillies' injury-plagued lineup. But the district says not to worry: These changes are "budget-neutral."

Given the financial problems - or as one official called it privately, the "fiscal tsunami" - looming ahead for the district, "budget-neutral" won't do the trick.

The federal stimulus money the district has been relying on for operations will soon disappear, tax revenues remain weak, the state's educational budget is smaller than anticipated, and Gov. Rendell, who has been generous to the school district and education in general, will be leaving office in five months.

And yet, administrative salaries at the district, which have gone up since the state takeover in 2002, continue to rise under Ackerman.

By any measure, Ackerman herself is handsomely paid, hired at a salary of $325,000, not including perks, benefits and bonuses. The base salary of the superintendent of Chicago is $230,000, while the heads of New York City and Los Angeles school districts each make $250,000.

Ackerman's contract also called for a pay increase similar to what teachers received in collective bargaining. With the nation mired in the great recession, she blew an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and reject her increase, instead taking a 4 percent bump that pushed her annual salary up by $13,000 to $338,000. Other district administrators received 3 percent increases.

Compare that to Mayor Nutter, who is legally entitled to $198,658 a year. He took a voluntary pay cut that made his effective salary $167,440, less than half of Ackerman's. The mayor's chief of staff took a 10 percent cut, cabinet members a 5 percent cut and some midlevel officials in the offices of the mayor and managing director took 3.75 percent cuts.

Those cuts don't include 10 furlough days over the past two years, which represent an additional 4 percent salary decrease.

Rendell, whose salary is a whisper of Ackerman's at $178,000, voluntarily relinquished a cost-of-living increase this year, rolling his salary back to $175,000. His cabinet officials followed suit.

To appreciate the increasing salaries of top district administrators, consider that before the state takeover, the base salary of Superintendent David Hornbeck was $170,000, or adjusted for today's dollars, $220,000 - $105,000 lower than Ackerman's.

The top spot is not the only key position at the district for which pay has increased significantly. Here's a snapshot of some others:

Chief talent officer: The head of human resources, or what the district now calls chief talent officer, Estelle Mathews is paid $185,400. A decade ago, the district's head of human resources earned $165,000 in today's dollars. The city's director of human resources makes $129,232, 30 percent less than Mathews.

Chief financial officer: A decade ago, the district's CFO made $156,000 in today's dollars. Mike Masch, whom the district hired from the state, where he earned about $148,000 as secretary of the budget, began at $220,000 (now $226,600) as the district's "chief business officer," a job that included the responsibilities of chief financial officer.

Ackerman recently scaled back Masch's broader operational responsibilities. He is now the district's CFO. His salary will remain the same.

By comparison, the city's chief financial officer, Finance Director Rob Dubow, earns $162,559.

Chief communications officer: Evelyn Sample Oates, who until earlier this week was CCO for the district, makes $180,000. Compare that to the CCO before the state takeover, who earned $130,000 in today's dollars, or to the mayor's chief spokesman, $114,000. Oates has now been demoted. Her salary, the district says, is under review; her replacement, Lisa Mastoon, has been hired at an even higher salary - $190,000.

General counsel: The new general counsel, Michael A. Davis, earns $190,000. Before the takeover, the general counsel's salary was, in today's dollars, $150,000. The city's top lawyer, City Solicitor Shelley Smith, is paid $162,559 to run a much larger office. The governor's general counsel earns $147,345.

New positions: One of Ackerman's most recent hires, Leroy Nunery, was added less than four months ago to fill a new position called chief of institutional advancement, at a salary of $180,000. A few weeks ago, he was promoted to another new position as Ackerman's second-in-command. He received a $50,000 increase ($50,000 is about the salary of a six-year teacher with a master's degree).

Admittedly, comparing salaries is a tricky business, and many factors need to be considered, such as market competition. Nevertheless, the superintendent and the School Reform Commission seem to be tone-deaf about what's going on in the rest of the city, as taxpayers face higher taxes, reduced services, lower household earnings and, in some cases, unemployment.

Perhaps Ackerman's new communications chief can convince her that calling her recent administrative hiring actions "budget-neutral" won't fly in rowhouse Philadelphia.

Phil Goldsmith writes "The Gold Standard" column for the People Paper's It's Our Money, a project focused on the city budget (www.ourmoneyphilly.com). He served as interim chief executive officer of the school district from 2000-2001.

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