Things I Know 214 of 365: I’ve been thinking of two superintendents

Whatever you are, be a good one.

– Abraham Lincoln

In the span of a few weeks, two superintendents have popped up on my radar.

The first was out-going School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. Arlene Ackerman.

Over the last few contentious years, Dr. Ackerman has pushed some drastic reforms in Philly schools, ruffling more than a few feathers. As was reportedly the case in her former tenures as the head of schools in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, Dr. Ackerman chose to push rather than negotiate.

Her unwillingness to collect political capital meant hers was quickly spent like so many of the district’s budget dollars, and the city’s School Reform Commission moved to buy out Dr. Ackerman’s contract.

The cost was $905,000 made up of $500,000 in district funds and $405,000 in private sector donations. According to her contract, more money was due Dr. Ackerman, but she gave it back to the district with an earmark for the Promise Academies she spearheaded over the last few years.

The second superintendent I’ve been paying attention to has been Larry Powell, the head of Fresno, CA schools.

Powell, who will be retiring at the end of the 2015 school year asked his school board if he could retire for a day and then be hired back at a salary of $31,000 per year. In turn, Powell will give back the “$288,241 in salary and benefits for the next three and a half years of his term.”

It all adds up to about $800,000 and reports Powell’s move is designed to ensure programs he’s started in the district survive past his retirement.

Talking to The Root, Powell said, “My wife and I asked ourselves ‘What can we do that might restore confidence in government?’”

These two superintendents paint different pictures of public service for me.

When I first read about Powell’s move, I posted the story to twitter and Facebook, prompting Gary to reply, “All government services may be replaced with charity.”

His point is well taken. Powell’s move could be perceived as a tip of the hat to a privatization or de-democratization of services for the public good.

I see where he’s coming from, but I don’t think that’s what this is.

Powell’s move to return $800,000 he would otherwise be earning while serving the remainder of his term stirs strong cognitive dissonance as Dr. Ackerman receives $905,000 to leave the School District of Philadelphia.

My initial reaction to the news of Dr. Ackerman’s buy-out was a knee-jerk, “She should donate the money to the district.”

After all, Philadelphia schools have been slashing at budgets to make up for a $640+ million shortfall. This has meant huge difficulties in maintaining (forget about improving) the education of the city’s children.

This reaction was tempered as I realized the intense difficulties I would have trying to convince myself to give up nearly $1 million.

It occurs to me, though, that I am not the leader of a school district who made decisions that (rightly or wrongly) led to some of that district’s darkest financial hours.

I understand the money here is rightly Dr. Ackerman’s. It is the end result of contract negotiations and money to which she is entitled.

Still, as she leaves, I cannot help but think of the teachers’ salaries she is taking with her.

3 thoughts on “Things I Know 214 of 365: I’ve been thinking of two superintendents

  1. Lots of us do what we do, whether paid fairly or not. I don't dispute the generosity of the Fresno superintendent, nor do I know if he is any good at his job.I also believe that his act of selflessness will reinforce the anti-government, Ayn Rand, Ron Paul, Rick Perry policies that wish to substitute the common good with the supremacy private individual.I remain deeply concerned by the failure of anti-democratic movements masquerading under clever titles like “mayoral control” and “reform commission” that continue to fail public education in even the simplest of cases without adequate public oversight or transparency. Why was Arlene Ackerman given a 3-4 year contract, especially based on her track record. She is not Peyton Manning. Why did she need such a contract? Where was she going to go? Why are the donors buying out her contract being kept anonymous? Why didn't those folks donate half a million dollars to the Philadelphia public schools instead?What's the good of having an anti-government nut-job Governor of Pennsylvania if he can't break Ackerman's contract? Can't a civics group sue to stop the payment? She resigned. Call her bluff. Suing a poor district would not be a good career move for Dr. Ackerman.Sadly, I have little reason to believe that the next Superintendent (another corporate utopian) will be any better.

    • Part of the problem, Gary, is that the SRC (School Reform Commission) just gave her a raise a few months ago for 'all of the great work she'd done' and then a series of events took the shine out of their eyes. They couldn't fire her (which would have meant no payout) because there was no 'cause' to argue after that bonus.As for the Governor–he and the Mayor appoint members of the SRC, so it would look bad for the Gov to fire somebody hired by someone he appointed.  What Philly really needs to do is stop hiring these 'superstar' Supers and look within the city for a leader who knows the city, knows the kids and knows the players. That and actually installing a locally elected School Board.

  2. You might be happy to know that WHYY did a little piece at the end of their local news show listing all of the things that PhilaSD could have bought with that money… how many salaries… laptops… pencils… etc. It was intensely editorialized, but it drove home the point that even non-teachers were itching to do that math.

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