Anonymous Donations Help Buy Out School Superintendent’s Contract, Raising Concerns

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August 23, 2011; Source: Associated Press via Bloomberg Businessweek | NPQ has been following stories where private funds are being solicited to fund public services. Here is another story in that series that raises issues worth considering.

In February 2011, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted to extend the contract of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman through 2014. Four months later, in the face of a large deficit, the commission decided that it would be better if she left immediately. The longer contract had increased size of the severance package owed to Ackerman, so in an attempt to limit the burden on taxpayers Mayor Michael Nutter went to friends in the private sector and solicited anonymous donations in the amount of $405,000 to add to the $500,000 in public funds being used in the buyout.

Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of 70, a watchdog group, objects. He told the Associated Press that the fact that the donations are anonymous prevents the public “from knowing whether or how the favor might be returned—either by the school district or by another part of government.” Stalberg added, “There is no compelling reason for the lack of transparency. . . . If the donors are insisting upon it, find other donors.”

Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, says that the concept of a public-private buyout “is certainly not typical.” Pennsylvania’s state auditor is looking into the whole thing.

Ackerman, by the way, has donated the compensation she was due for the last year of her contract to “her signature school overhaul program” which had suffered state cutbacks.—Ruth McCambridge