Secret funding deal for Ackerman meets its just fate

The School Reform Commission bungled the contract with departed superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

It’s a shame that it took public outrage to stop the secret deal that helped finance the departure of former Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman.

It appears that the generous donors — perhaps sensing a potential public relations disaster and efforts to uncover their identities — reneged on their contributions. With pressure mounting, the School District decided Wednesday to cover the entire buyout.

The original plan called for the district to put up only $500,000. Mayor Nutter approved it and helped solicit donations to cover the balance.

Instead, the cash-strapped district was left holding the checkbook — at taxpayer expense — after most of the anonymous donors who pledged $405,000 pulled out.

Cloaked in secrecy, the flawed buyout deal drew justified criticism and scrutiny by state officials. District officials refused to identify the donors. Even now, the district has refused to reveal who the anonymous donors were, or even how much was pledged, casting more suspicions.

Clearly, the School Reform Commission wants to put the embarrassing matter to rest. But the public has a right to know the sordid details.

State Auditor General Jack Wagner should move forward with his plans to audit the buyout. Only transparency will reassure the public that there was nothing improper about the arrangement.

The public is also owed a better explanation of why the district opted not to challenge Ackerman’s ability to collect her huge buyout. She has made disparaging remarks that seem to have violated the agreement, raising the possibility the district could void her severance agreement.

The School Reform Commission bears responsibility for mishandling the Ackerman buyout, believed to be among the highest payments in the country to get rid of a school superintendent.

Knowing that big city superintendents rarely last five years, the panel nonetheless extended her contract a few months ago and then began negotiating her ouster in August.

The district paid Ackerman for the time remaining on her contract, which would have expired in 2014. She also received about $83,000 for unused vacation and sick time.

Her departure is a stark contrast with Fresno County schools chief Larry Powell, who gave back $800,000 of his salary. He took early retirement so he could start getting his pension, then returned to work as superintendent, earning less than a starting teacher. He says he’ll live comfortably on his pension and donate his small salary to charity.

While it is good that the controversial, secretive arrangement with Ackerman unraveled, such an unusual deal should have never been considered. It lacked the transparency and accountability that the public deserves.