IN A VOTE of confidence, the School Reform Commission last week said it owed Superintendent William Hite what it called a "performance bonus."
It should have been called combat pay.
That's the extra pay given to members of the U.S. military who serve in "designated combat zones or hazardous duty areas." That pretty much describes the Philadelphia School District, certainly in 2012 when Hite took over after the SRC fired Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
They were perilous times, certainly for the students in the District. The state has slashed about $500 million in aid, creating a huge hole in the district's budget. A round of layoffs - that would continue for several years - was just beginning. Ackerman, whose imperious style earned her the nickname "Queen Arlene," had a knack for making enemies, so the District had few friends in the outside world, especially among the politicians who controlled the purse strings.
Hite was the calm after the Ackerman storm. A Virginian with a courtly manner, Hite began his career as a classroom teacher, rising through the ranks to become superintendent of public schools in Prince George's County, in Maryland.
It was a large district, though nothing could fully prepare him for the challenge of running an urban school district in the battlefield called Philadelphia.
What he was able to draw upon are character traits that make him a good leader. He has offered a consistency of vision, a pro-child and pro-parent agenda, a genuine belief that every child can learn and a determination about making real change in how schools operate in this city.
What Hite also brought to the table was a personality that won over critics. He never raises his voice. He never points his finger to blame. He exhibits patience and forbearance - even in the face of screaming protesters or angry lawmakers.
Instead, he has countered with a call for "shared sacrifices" by all parties involved in education in the city to pull the District out of the hole it fell into before he arrived. We can't say he has succeeded, but that failure is due to forces outside of his control. With the notable exception of Mayor Nutter, he has not gotten much from the political class. He's still at loggerheads with the teachers union over concessions he's sought.
Financially, the district is no longer under siege but it's still a combat zone. Services are at a minimal level. Resources are scant.
This week, Hite moved ahead with changes he had been planning centered on decentralizing power in the district, reasoning that if he waited for needed money to arrive he could be waiting forever.
That is called optimism.
He has restored the reputation to a system that was so lacking when he arrived.
That is called credibility.
He has consistently shown grace under pressure, which is one definition of courage.
Hite makes a good salary. But, it's no surprise, given his performance, that the SRC wanted to give him a $60,000 bonus. And it's no surprise that Hite turned it down, saying it would be unfair given the district's finances.
We call that leadership.