WHILE PHILADELPHIA School District officials continue combing their books for nearly $40 million in spending cuts needed to balance next year's budget, one group of school employees appears to be safe from the ax: lawyers.
The district's Office of General Counsel will receive a slight increase of $325,074 in 2008-09, bringing its total outlay to $13.5 million, according to the budget proposal presented during City Council hearings April 28 and 29.
The head of the office, General Counsel Sherry A. Swirsky, and the 18 attorneys who work for her are not only among the highest-paid school employees, but also make more than the attorneys who work for Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham and City Solicitor Shelley R. Smith.
The school attorneys' high salaries caught the eye of City Council President Anna Verna during the hearings.
"I just can't fathom what they do seven or eight hours a day, five days a week," Verna said. "That's something that I would definitely want to look into."
Others have begun questioning why a district that pays its teachers among the lowest salaries in the region, and which this year will spend nearly $2.9 million for assistance from private law firms, must pay its in-house attorneys so much more than other city lawyers.
"Since the state takeover of the school district, there has been this strange spending culture that's happened for a select group of people at 440," Helen Gym, a founding member of Parents United for Public Education, said, referring to the school district's North Broad Street headquarters.
"There's a certain amount of entitlement that's expected," she said. "And I think it contrasts greatly with the level of poverty that's happening in the schools. And that ranges from a very expensive School Reform Commission to a general counsel that's really overpaid."
Swirsky, the second-highest-paid school district employee behind interim CEO Tom Brady, makes $236,900 a year. The average salary for her 18 lawyers is $101,000.
By comparison, City Solicitor Shelley R. Smith makes $174,494, and the 152 attorneys in her office average $78,181, according to Smith, whose office represents the city in a broad range of civil matters.
Abrahammakes $156,441. While the starting salary for assistant D.A.s is $48,975, Abraham's spokeswoman Cathie A. Abookire could not provide an average salary for the 304 assistants in the office.
"Do we really need to be paying Sherry Swirsky more than the D.A.?," asked Greg Wade, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council, the city's largest parents' group.
"As troubled as our schools are, they are not on a scale like that, having to deal with all the crime in the city," he said. "I have to question why these school lawyers are making that kind of money. There's something wrong there, and that really needs to be looked into."
"I hope that the district will be equally as generous when it comes to negotiating raises for members of my bargaining unit," said Jerry Jordan, president of the 16,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
The contract with teachers expires Aug. 31.
The only part-time attorney on Swirsky's staff earns more than the most educated and highly paid teachers, the Daily News has learned.
For a four-day work week, Assistant General Counsel Elizabeth Gutman makes $81,800.
The highest-paid teachers, known as senior career teachers, make $81,617.
The small number who make that pay must have a master's degree plus 60 college-credit hours or a Ph.D, have earned two teaching certifications and have 10 years of satisfactory service with the school district, said Barbara Goodman, a spokeswoman for the teachers' union.
The district's governing five-member School Reform Commission employed an executive search firm to find Swirsky, whom it hired in 2006 from the Philadelphia office of law firm Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP, where she had worked 28 years, most recently as a litigation partner.
Swirsky, 56, defended the salaries paid to her and her staff, saying that they have more experience than other city-government lawyers, and more responsibilities.
Five of her attorneys work in the area of contract law, Swirsky said, four in special-education law, one on charter-school issues, two in civil rights and tort litigation, one in claims, one in commercial litigation, two in labor and employment law and two in school law.
"School districts are the most highly regulated institutions that exist," she said. "We get federal and state grants with very technical compliance issues.
"We're a little different than other government law departments in that we have no entry-level positions," she said. "The least experienced person [in her office] has 10 years' experience. The most experienced, including myself, have 30 or more years of experience. Whereas, with the D.A.'s Office and the City Solicitor's Office, they have people right out of law school.
"It would not be possible for someone without a substantial amount of legal experience to practice in this office," she added.
Despite its experience, Swirsky's staff still relies heavily on the work of outside law firms. Those firms will be paid $2.89 million this year, and the same amount is budgeted for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
A spot check found that Philadelphia's school attorneys cost taxpayers more than attorneys in other cities.
The Houston Independent School District, for example, has a student enrollment of 199,500, compared with Philadelphia's 167,000 students in traditional schools and 30,000 others in charter schools.
Houston's Legal Services office employs just five attorneys who are paid from a budget of $908,905, according to information provided by that school district.
General Counsel Elneita Hutchins-Taylor is paid $168,264.10. In a separate and smaller office, Financial Management Attorney Donald Boehm makes $136,151.46.
In Chicago, which has 408,600 students, 44 attorneys work in the school district's Law Department. General Counsel Patrick Rocks makes $153,000, while the average salary of his attorneys is $91,180, said Michael P. Vaughn, a Chicago schools spokesman.