From Massachusetts to California, a rising number of school superintendents who find themselves at odds with their boards of education are enjoying softer landings thanks to generous farewell fees tucked into their contracts.
The $905,000 golden parachute announced with the departure last week of Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman is by all accounts the biggest buyout bonanza to date, at least in Pennsylvania.
But even as Ackerman's exit was making headlines, it was announced that Allentown's school superintendent, former state education secretary Gerald Zahorchak, was awarded a deal that let him stay on as a "strategist" with no specific duties at his $195,000 salary - along with a $50,000 lump-sum payment.
In February, in the Gettysburg Area School District - a fraction of the size of Philadelphia's or Allentown's - Superintendent William Hall walked away with two years' salary, $270,000. The district also bought out his mortgage - on a house built by vo-tech students at the high school. Total package deal: $542,000.
Across the nation, school superintendents are negotiating taxpayer-funded buyouts that include not just hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, but health-care benefits, car allowances, and other perks extending well beyond their terms of employment.
One state official wants to curb such costly departure deals.
"There is a proliferation of these deals, and that raises concerns with us, especially with the ever-increasing cost of education," said state Auditor General Jack Wagner, who announced last week that he would begin conducting audits of all superintendent buyouts.
School administrators say that in recent years, superintendents have regularly been caught in untenable situations that may not have been of their making: battles between school boards and the community, contract negotiations with teachers' unions, and having to trim programs, lay off teachers, or seek tax hikes.
Since 2005, Wagner has audited buyouts of superintendents in seven Pennsylvania school districts, ranging from $73,000 in rural Coudersport, near the New York state line, to $420,000 in the Mount Lebanon district in the Pittsburgh suburbs.
"These deals are not transparent," he said. "There's a change in school board and, before you know it, there's a change at the top. No one knows why, and the loser is the taxpayer."
Wagner, a Democrat, wants legislation to tighten controls on superintendents' contracts. State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he was open to considering such a measure but didn't think it necessary.
"The school districts have the power to do that now," he said. "The contracts should be more carefully negotiated so they write a contract tight with little or no golden parachute and don't up the contract by one or two years right before it expires."
Some say everything from budget cuts to local politics to salary caps - such as those Gov. Christie recently ordered in New Jersey - have favored would-be school superintendents: fewer people apply.
"There are more districts pursuing fewer candidates," said Tom Templeton, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
Templeton said that although Ackerman's payout was by far the largest, such negotiated deals were cropping up in districts near and far.
"It's not so much a question of a trend in Pennsylvania but elsewhere, too," he said. "School districts must be as vigilant as possible in terms of constructing contracts."
Before the early 1980s, superintendents rarely had contracts and often stayed on for years, said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
"As pressures increased and there was increased politicization of school boards, the life span of a superintendent became briefer and briefer," Buckheit said in an interview. "They began being pushed out in increasing numbers, like CEOs of corporations."
Unlike teachers, superintendents don't have tenure protections, and they tend to take the flak when state or local budget cuts force them to trim programs or lay off teachers, he said. They have become lightning rods.
"The employment agreement is the only thing they have between maintaining employment and being put out on the street," Buckheit said.
He called Ackerman's buyout "extreme" compared with others, and said Pennsylvania superintendents' salaries average $130,000; the national average is $154,000.
Buckheit said some walk away with nothing except accrued sick pay and vacation pay, which can total tens of thousands of dollars or more.
In fact, Ackerman is due another check for unused sick and vacation time, and she will get health and life insurance coverage through June 2013. A district spokesman said he did not know the dollar value of Ackerman's insurance or sick and vacation time.
But the bulk of her buyout deal amounts to $905,000 - $500,000 from the district and $405,000 in private, anonymous donations funneled through a nonprofit with ties to the district. Mayor Nutter and the School Reform Commission, which approved the buyout last week, have rejected critics' calls to identify the donor or donors.
Some superintendents have accepted pay freezes or cuts to help their districts. Ackerman, whose three years as superintendent followed a 40-year career as a public schoolteacher, principal, and administrator, said she trimmed her buyout to help the deficit-ridden district.
Her contract had called for a $1.5 million payout; she said she gave up almost $600,000 of it to aid Promise Academies, her program to boost the city's most troubled schools.
Ackerman's predecessor, Paul Vallas, said school chiefs needed some guarantee to protect them in case their contracts are terminated early.
Vallas knows the feeling - he left the Philadelphia district in 2007, two years before his contract was up. He said he took vacation and sick pay that was owed him, totaling $180,000.
He said the size of Ackerman's buyout was troubling, especially in a time of layoffs and other cuts.
"I'm not blaming the superintendents as much as policymakers who are caught making such large payouts," said Vallas, reached by telephone in Haiti, where he is helping rebuild schools after the 2010 earthquake. "It sends the wrong signal to rank-and-file teachers, to parents, and taxpayers."