Is it a crime? Nope, just business

    “Is it a crime?” was the musical question Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman asked last week when she staged a defiant demonstration of support against those preparing her departure.

    A lot of people looking at the $905,000 buyout of Ackerman’s contract are asking if that isn’t a crime, given these desperate needs and finances of the school district she’s finally leaving behind.

    It ain’t a crime if it’s legal, and it’s legal because three years ago, a bunch of high-powered folks in this town including Mayor Michael Nutter and then Gov. Ed Rendell thought Ackerman was worth a superstar’s deal.

    I looked back at clips from 2008, when Philadelphia was searching for a new schools chief. She was among three finalists interviewed, and there was 40-person citizens advisory panel whose identities were for some reason kept secret by the School Reform Commission.

    There was ample reason to think twice about investing in Ackerman. She’d left San Fransisco’s schools after conflicts with community leaders and the school board there.

    When her appointment to Philly was announced, Mayor Nutter dismissed complaints about Ackerman’s autocratic style in San Francisco, saying some of her conflicts had been with the Green Party over issues like irradiated meat.

    “None of those are tremendously big issues here in Philadelphia,” Nutter said at her announcement.

    Nobody bats a thousand. But if you’re going to make a mistake in hiring, it’s especially painful to do it when you’re lavishing a big expensive contract on somebody.

    I’ve had a copy of Ackerman’s employment contract on my desk for a couple of years – just thought it would come in handy some day. A few of the terms:

    – Term: five years, ending the summer of 2013 (which was extended to 2014 earlier this year).

    -Base salary of $325,000, to increase every year in proportion with the teachers’ union contract.

    – A $100,000 retention bonus if she makes it to July 30, 2011.

    – An annual performance bonus of up to 20 percent of her salary.

    – 34 vacation days a year, in addition to school holidays and three personal days.

    – A $1 million term life insurance policy while she’s employed at the district.

    – $65,000 in annual payments to a retirement account.

    – And should the district terminate her except for cause, “all compensation and other payments and benefits” she would have earned through the end of her contract – June 30, 2014.

    She’s grubbed for extras from the day she got here, and now she’s leaving with a $905,000 payout. Nearly half of that comes from anonymous donors – kind of like the anonymous advisory committee who’s views were presumably considered when she was hired.

    I don’t know where you go to get an effective leader for a school district like Philadelphia. As I wrote in a post in June, I’ve been here long enough to see a parade of promising educators, three of them from big-time national searches, all of them disappointments.

    When you hire somebody local, you generally have a better idea of what you’re getting, and you’re less likely to end up with an Ackerman-scale disaster, at least financially.

    But the truth is that great leadership is rare and valuable, and were we to find someone we really believe can inspire, manage and lead this place, I’d pay up again.

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