Doing the math on school district salaries

Posted: July 30, 2010

IS ARLENE ACKERMAN's $338,000 salary obscene? Are the salaries of many school district executives, which hover around $200,000, unconscionable?

Or do these salaries - highlighted yesterday in a Daily News column by former schools CEO Phil Goldsmith - represent new evidence that after years of starving the city's public schools, we are now recognizing the value of education, and are simply paying for what we value?

We're betting that most people's answer depends on who signs their paychecks- if, that is, they're lucky enough to be getting one.

Who decides what a fair salary is in this case? Other cities with much larger districts, like Chicago (410,000 students) and New York (1.1 million students) pay their school heads far less. In fact, almost all cities do.

Ackerman says her years of experience - four decades in education -justifies her salary. She has also saved money, she says, by realigning district operations. The district now spends 6 percent of its budget on district operations; the standard is 5 to 8 percent.

To be fair, Ackerman didn't establish the standard for this high rate of pay. Her predecessor, Paul Vallas, had a base of $275,000, with perks that pushed his compensation beyond $500,000 a year. (Directly following Vallas, interim chief Tom Brady made $275,000). The fact is, rising school salaries coincide with the state takeover of the city's schools.

We support public education, especially those on the front lines, such as teachers and principals, who should be paid appropriately. And Ackerman apparently agrees, since she has paved the way for principals to be able to make $150,000.

But it's not just Ackerman's salary that is at issue. It's also the pay of the executives who surround her that sends the wrong message, on a number of fronts:

First, the city, the state and the district are struggling against harsh, new economic realities that could lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of education jobs. Mayor Nutter took a pay cut. The governor himself makes about half what Ackerman makes. Taking these comparisons as appropriate measures of value, how can the head of a district with 200,000 students be more valuable than the head of an entire state of 12 million?

Second, in the last few years, a string of scandals at charter schools, with heads of single schools pulling in salaries in excess of $200,000, suggests a new atmosphere of entitlement, and creates a sickening sense that some people see public-education budgets as a way to get rich. The governor, the School Reform Commission, and the district's management should be hypersensitive to even unwittingly contributing to this image.

But the most disturbing backdrop is the reality of Philadelphia families. The median income in this city is $40,000; median income for families with kids in school is $30,000, with a per capita income of school district families of $16,509. And if you do the math - a $3.2 billion budget divided by 200,000 students - that's almost exactly the figure that the district is spending per pupil.

We're not suggesting that the head of the school system should be poor. But all those responsible for establishing the salaries for the district should devise pay packages with less insurmountable divide between the well-paid few and the people they are paid to serve. (Who, by the way, pay for those salaries.)

The question is not just whether these salaries are too high. The question is who's accountable to the public for explaining why these are sound investments, and when they will pay off? It's time for the SRC to speak up. *

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