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Editorial: School CEO's Salary

How much is too much?

Rather than attempt austerity, the School Reform Commission has given Philadelphia's new schools CEO a lusty pay package similar to her predecessor's deal.

Arlene Ackerman has inked a contract worth up to $494,333 in salary and perks. Besides a $325,000 annual base salary, she gets incentive bonuses, life insurance and a pension. Plus fringe benefits such as a "late-model" car for both business and personal use, a laptop, a Blackberry, and a cell phone.

District officials say they had to offer a competitive compensation package to land Ackerman, who previously ran the San Francisco and Washington schools. "We are paying market value for an outstanding education talent," said district spokeswoman Cecilia Cummings.

Next week, Ackerman officially succeeds Paul Vallas, who now runs the New Orleans school system. In his last year here, Vallas earned a $275,000 base salary, but had perks that pushed his package to $516,869 annually.

Ackerman will be paid less than what Vallas would have received had he stayed in Philadelphia, but she's in the same ballpark.

At a time when the district is struggling to balance its budget, this would have been the perfect time to reign in the six-figure salary and generous perks.

Ackerman's five-year contract also includes a possible $65,000 bonus for achieving performance goals. And just for staying through June 2011, she will get an extra $100,000 retention bonus.

Ackerman can also use 30 of her 34 vacation days to do consulting for other organizations, which will pay for her expertise. One would think she would be too busy trying to fix the city's broken school system to do outside work. But that provision suggests she plans to find the time.

Her contract, just as it was with Vallas' package, brings to mind the contract of some Fortune 500 chief executive instead of the overseer of a beleaguered school district that never seems to have enough money to do the job right.

The Houston school system, which is about the same size as Philadelphia's, with 200,000 students, pays its superintendent a $302,000 base salary plus about $150,000 in perks and benefits. The school chiefs in New York and Washington each get $250,000 a year; Los Angeles' gets $300,000.

To her credit, Ackerman has already made some promising moves. She's outlined priorities for the first 100 days and has named state budget secretary Michael Masch as her chief business officer, a smart move that should help in seeking adequate funding from Harrisburg.

Ackerman has promised to focus on the schools, promote fiscal accountability, and hold all adults accountable. Those are ambitious goals, and she has her work cut out for her. But if she lives up to her billing - and high compensation - Philadelphia students should get a better education.