Philadelphia schools chief Arlene Ackerman refused Monday to explain exactly what she did to earn a $65,000 bonus, awarded in April by the School Reform Commission in a tough economic climate, as other public officials took pay cuts.
Ackerman, through a spokesman, cited a provision in the five-year contract she negotiated with the district that forbids the release of the evaluation.
The bonus for the 2008-09 school year comes on top of her $338,000 annual salary.
Ackerman's salary is higher than those of the school chiefs in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, the nation's three largest districts. She's due an additional 3 percent raise on Sept. 1 and is eligible to receive another bonus next year.
The Philadelphia School District recently released the bonus criteria at the direction of the state's right-to-know officer, following a request by The Inquirer. The decision also said the actual performance evaluation is exempt from release by state law.
School Reform Commission Chair Robert L. Archie Jr. said in May that Ackerman "went through an extensive evaluation process and exceeded" all benchmarks.
Archie's defense, with the backing of the commission, comes at a time when Mayor Nutter, his chief of staff, cabinet members, and some other city staff took pay cuts this year on top of unpaid furlough days.
Gov. Rendell also recently refused a cost-of-living increase he was scheduled to receive.
And some superintendents, including those in Boston, Los Angeles, and Rochester, N.Y., have declined bonuses or refused increases.
Philadelphia district documents show that the performance objectives for the 2008-09 school year ranged from achieving a balanced budget to increasing average daily attendance at the district's lowest-performing schools to improving safety in city schools.
But by the end of 2009, Ackerman was under fire for an outbreak of violence at South Philadelphia High. The Dec. 3 racially motivated attacks on Asian students triggered a boycott by some and prompted state and federal investigations.
In awarding Ackerman her bonus, the School Reform Commission said she met goals in four broad areas - improving student academic achievement in a safe environment; distributing resources equitably; creating accountability for district employees and developing partnerships with parents and others.
District spokeswoman Lisa Mastoon said Monday that Archie still believes the bonus was a good move.
"The SRC stands behind its decision to give her the bonus based on the fact that she met the criteria in the evaluation form," Mastoon said.
Those 45 criteria also included goals such as: "keeps SRC informed on issues, needs, and operation of school system in a timely manner"; "works to improve good employee morale and loyalty to the organization"; "demonstrates tact and diplomacy in working with individuals and groups."
The criteria were finalized in January 2009. Ackerman came to Philadelphia in June 2008. She could have asked for a bonus as early as the spring of 2009, but she did not ask for it, officials said.
In a letter to The Inquirer explaining the release of the criteria but not Ackerman's evaluation, open-records officer Jessica A. Diaz offered some explanation for the bonus.
"While confident and positive about all that the community and school district had accomplished together in one year, Dr. Ackerman recognized that the school district's five-year strategic plan, Imagine 2014, was only in its first phase of implementation," Diaz wrote. "By the midpoint of her second year as superintendent, both she and the community were seeing measurable results."
The $65,000 bonus - 20 percent of Ackerman's salary - was awarded in late April.
Archie said Ackerman - a former Columbia University professor and superintendent in Washington and San Francisco who holds an education doctorate from Harvard - would use part of the bonus to finance five scholarships and donate $1,000 to the district's Widener School for disabled students.
Diaz noted that while Ackerman received a bonus based on measurable criteria, her predecessor Paul Vallas got bonuses every year but one, "without an official or documented performance review."
Diaz wrote that the bonus criteria were developed on "national best practices" and policies in a 2008 Council of Great City Schools report.
The council, a national nonprofit that lobbies on behalf of the nation's largest school districts, found that nationwide in 2008, superintendents received bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $75,000.
Philadelphia is the nation's ninth-largest school district, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
When it came to light that the School Reform Commission had given Ackerman the $65,000 bonus, The Inquirer requested both the criteria upon which the perk was awarded and the evaluation.
District officials denied the request, and the newspaper appealed the district's decision to the state Office of Open Records, which compelled the district to release the criteria.
However, the state upheld the district's assertion that it did not have to release Ackerman's actual evaluation because employee performance rating or review is an exemption of the law.
Signed in May 2008, Ackerman's contract states that "the performance evaluation shall be kept confidential by the SRC."
Under her contract, Ackerman also receives 34 days of vacation, and can trade up to four for cash annually. She also gets a car, BlackBerry, and cell phone, plus a laptop, printer, and fax machine for home use.
Ackerman is scheduled to get the 3 percent pay raise in September to match a teachers' pay increase, bringing her base salary to $348,140. Next June, she would be eligible for a retention bonus of $100,000. Her contract expires in 2013.
Ramon Cortines, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the country's second-largest school system, in 2009 voluntarily took a salary of $250,000, $50,000 less than what his predecessor earned, a reflection of that district's budget woes.
And in Boston, superintendent Carol Johnson recently told the Boston Herald that she's turning down any future pay hikes, performance bonuses, and car allowances because she doesn't think it's right to accept more money in a time when schools are strapped.
The Rochester, N.Y., superintendent recently said he'd give back $10,000 of his salary for the coming school year, and the superintendent of the Guilford County, N.C., district this year declined a 3 percent pay raise.
Former district interim CEO Phil Goldsmith said he wasn't ready to say whether Ackerman ought to accept the 3 percent pay raise for which she'll soon be eligible.
"It's something she's legally entitled to do," said Goldsmith, who has criticized Ackerman's salary in a Philadelphia Daily News column. "Whether it's displayed appropriate leadership given the financial situation at the time, I'll let others decide. It's clearly not what other elected officials, such as the mayor and governor, have done."