Some schools slow in making superintendent performance standards public

Posted: July 07, 2014

When David Weitzel became the Central Bucks School District superintendent in October, a relatively new state law required his $215,000-a-year contract to include performance goals based on test scores, his handling of the district's budget, and other criteria.

The goals are supposed to be posted online. And after his annual review, the district's website must show whether he has met them.

Eight months into his contract, the Central Bucks website lacks the performance standards for the county's highest-paid superintendent.

The same is true in Chester Upland, Interboro, Garnet Valley, and Radnor, all Delaware County school districts with new superintendents in the last 18 months, as well as in Morrisville in Bucks and Coatesville in Chester County, where top administrators started in recent weeks.

The law covers new assistant superintendents as well. And in Philadelphia, performance goals and reviews for people recently hired in those positions are missing from the district's website.

At least six districts in the region have complied with the law. They are Ridley and Upper Darby in Delaware County, Centennial and Quakertown in Bucks, and Cheltenham and Abington in Montgomery County.

Top administrators have almost always had performance goals and reviews. But since September 2012, the school code has required them in new contracts and mandated that districts post them online. The law doesn't say when. Failure to comply carries no penalty. And no one is tasked with checking.

Brett Schaeffer, a spokesman for the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, said the Pennsylvania school code includes many similar laws that have no penalties for noncompliance - making them easy for districts to ignore.

"There's an argument to be made that there is transparency to be had, and that's great," he said, but for struggling districts, such as Philadelphia, "there are clearly bigger issues."

Fernando Gallard, a spokesman for the Philadelphia School District, said that the district's compliance had been delayed in part because of significant central office staff cuts.

"We are reviewing the requirement at this time, and we plan to fully comply with it," Gallard said.

The state requirement was in part a reaction to former Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's $65,000 bonus in 2010. After the gift was questioned, Ackerman and the School Reform Commission refused to release her performance review.

The Inquirer obtained it only after filing a Right-to-Know request.

The performance goal provision was passed in 2012 as part of an omnibus education bill, known as Act 82, that also bans large severance packages to ousted superintendents, such as the $900,000 paid to Ackerman and $365,000 given to Central Bucks' previous superintendent, Rodney Green.

Common sense

The provision's author, former State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), said he didn't want to "put districts in a straitjacket" by setting deadlines. But he said common sense would dictate that they be displayed sooner rather than later.

"If I were on a school board, I would want those performance goals set forth publicly at the very beginning of the superintendent's tenure," Piccola said.

He added: "If we had fines or jail time for failure to abide by the education code, the jails and coffers of Pennsylvania would be filled. It's really up to the constituencies to put the pressure on the districts to comply."

Officials from Central Bucks, Garnet Valley, Chester Upland, and Radnor told The Inquirer that their superintendents' performance goals and reviews would be posted in the coming days and weeks.

Central Bucks school board president Paul Faulkner said the district hasn't posted the superintendent's goals partly because of the last superintendent's unexpected departure last year. Weitzel, who was assistant superintendent, was appointed in October.

"It's not being ignored," Faulkner said. "This will be done, not quite in the time frame we would have wanted, but the situation was not exactly what we wanted, either."

Transparency wanted

Beth Darcy, a parent and member of the watchdog group Central Bucks Engage, has been critical of the board for failing to post Weitzel's goals.

She said her concern was transparency, particularly after Green, the last superintendent, was ousted after less than a year and given a $365,000 payout. The new law did not apply to Green. And a non-disparagement clause barred the board from revealing the full extent of its dissatisfaction with him, although board members said he rarely met with administrators or consulted them on educational matters.

"We're the perfect example of why the law is necessary and why Central Bucks should be bending over backward to comply with it," Darcy said. "It's a big deal. These little details add up to providing the public with information that builds trust in the district."

The Cheltenham School District posted the goals of Superintendent Natalie Thomas, which included updating the district's five-year facilities plan and providing the board with an evaluation of student performance. Last month, the board announced she had met them.

Lee Ann Wentzel, superintendent of the Ridley School District in Delaware County, had outlined her goals in her contract when she was hired four years ago. After the law went into effect and she signed a new contract, all she had to do was "click, it's posted," she said.

"I didn't need a law. If somebody wanted it, I would have given it to them," she said.

With her evaluation out there for everyone to see, "some people get caught up in 'I'm a member of the public, I have a child in the school, I should be allowed to evaluate the superintendent,' " she said. "If you disagree with the board's evaluation, you go through the public process of replacing the board."

610-313-8118 @Ben_Finley

Staff writers Kristen A. Graham and Michaelle Bond contributed to this article.

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