When Sherry A. Swirsky was hired as the Philadelphia School District's general counsel in October 2006, she did not come at a bargain.

Swirsky's initial salary was $230,000, and it has since grown to $236,900.

Her salary is 52.6 percent higher than the $155,250 last earned by Wendy Beetlestone, the district's previous top attorney, who served from December 2002 to September 2005, a district spokesman confirmed yesterday.

Swirsky's salary is also higher than the $156,441 paid to Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham and the $174,494 paid to City Solicitor Shelley R. Smith, the Daily News reported yesterday.

The 18 attorneys who work in Swirsky's office also earn more than the average salary earned by the assistant D.A.s in Abraham's office and the attorneys in Smith's office: $101,000 compared with $75,404 and $78,181, respectively.

The salaries being paid to the school attorneys have led some - including City Council President Anna Verna - to question why a cash-strapped school district pays its legal staff so much more than city government attorneys.

Cecilia Cummings, a spokeswoman for the district, said she was not at liberty to discuss why Swirsky earns so much more than Beetlestone, who is now with the Philadelphia law firm of Hangley Aronchick Segal and Pudlin.

Cummings, however, said that Swirsky's expertise is needed as the district proceeds with numerous educational reforms.

Swirsky has saved the district at least $2.5 million due to "skillful" contract negotiations and "from her dogged efforts to minimize the cost that we pay to cover the attorneys' fees for plaintiffs who file suit against the district," Cummings said.

Swirsky, according to the district's 2008-09 budget proposal, is scheduled to get a raise that will push her salary to $242,823.

That scheduled raise, however, was the result of a printing error, said Wayne Harris, the district's budget director.

Swirsky and the district's other estimated 600 nonunionized employees are not getting raises next year, Harris insisted.

"It was just a complete mistake. It did not belong in the budget book and it will not be in the final budget," he said.

The School Reform Commission is scheduled to adopt the $2.3 billion 2008-09 budget on May 28. *