It pays to be superintendent

Posted: May 04, 2012

Former Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman became a poster child for bad buyout deals when the district was forced to shell out nearly $1 million last year to end her contract.

Ackerman was paid a whopping $905,000 in salary and $83,000 for unused personal and vacation days. It was a huge payout for a cash-strapped district struggling to plug a budget gap.

Fortunately, that experience helped prompt the state Senate to unanimously pass a bill that would limit how much public-school systems may pay departing administrators.

If also adopted by the House, the bill sponsored by Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin) would implement commonsense measures in negotiating pay packages with school superintendents across the state.

The bill falls short in failing to address superintendents’ salaries. Pennsylvania would do well to take a lesson from New Jersey, where Gov. Christie ordered salary caps for school leaders based on district enrollment rather than arbitrary standards.

The Pennsylvania legislation essentially requires school districts to use the powers they already have to negotiate contracts without golden parachutes that include hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, health-care benefits, car allowances, mortgage payments, and other perks.

The measure would cap payouts to superintendents or assistant superintendents who leave with more than two years remaining on their contracts to the equivalent of one year’s salary and benefits.

Those who leave with less than two years on their contracts could receive no more than half of the total salary and benefits owed to them under the remaining contract.

Those provisions should help districts that negotiate extended contracts with their school chiefs despite knowing that most superintendents rarely last more than three to five years. Only months after renewing Ackerman’s contract for three years, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission began negotiating her departure.

The district had to bear responsibility for Ackerman’s entire buyout package after a secret deal fell through to finance part of the payout with cash from anonymous donors who initially pledged $405,000.

But Ackerman isn’t the only administrator to receive such a generous farewell package.

Allentown schools chief Gerald Zahorchak, a former state education secretary, was paid $250,000 to leave his post last year. And the Carbondale Area School District reportedly may spend $320,000 when Superintendent Dominick F. Famularo retires next month and is given a package that includes 500 accrued vacation and sick days.

Piccola’s bill would limit payouts for unused sick leave for some employees. It would also require school boards to conduct an annual performance review of superintendents and put that information online. It would also require severance packages to be spelled out in public records.

Any time public dollars are spent, there should be transparency to assure there is nothing improper about the arrangements. Superintendents deserve to be paid well, but classrooms shouldn’t be shortchanged.

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