Phila. schools chief hires 14 staffers

School District of Philadelphia's CEO, Dr. Arlene Ackerman, has assembled her leadership team. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)


New Philadelphia schools chief Arlene Ackerman has surrounded herself with a diverse inner circle of educators picked from far and wide, shaking up a historically inbred district with fresh faces.

The 14 people Ackerman has tapped are seven women and seven men, most with classroom experience. They include a former Army colonel and a handful of ex-principals.

They come from around the country - New York, Detroit, Louisiana, Arizona, California.

Most are her former doctoral students from Columbia University or graduates of prestigious national programs she's attended herself.

"I am trying to put together a team, and I do get to pick my team," Ackerman said in an interview. "I'm bringing together a team that can work toward the vision we have for this school system."

But some people say the cost to a cash-strapped district is too high. Total pricetag for the 14 hires she's made so far: $1.8 million annually, or an average salary of $130,000 per person.

And many are asking why Ackerman needs four "special assistants" at a total cost of $332,500.

"There's a lot of questions about whether this is our best use of resources," said Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education. "People wanted to see tremendous investment at the school-based level, and we're seeing lots of new positions and duplication at the central office."

Gym's group has sent a letter to School Reform Commission chair Sandra Dungee Glenn criticizing Ackerman's hiring of the special assistants and asking for a meeting.

Ackerman vigorously defends her hires, saying the district is paying less than it did under the Paul Vallas administration for similar work. She also says she has reduced the central office staff, concentrating more personnel in classrooms.

According to a district analysis, Ackerman is spending $1.8 million for 14 central office jobs, compared with $2.5 million for 19 jobs under Vallas.

She cut some positions that existed under Vallas in order to hire special assistants. Officials say those jobs are necessary because Ackerman has directed all regional superintendents to report to her, rather than the chief academic officer.

Ackerman said she is "conscious of trying not to bring people in at high-salary levels."

Michael Casserly, head of the Washington-based lobbying group Council of the Great City Schools, said her moves were typical for the leader of a large urban district.

"The public will hold her accountable for the results she gets. Because of that, she needs to pick her own team that will help her meet her goals," said Casserly, adding that because Ackerman has experience in several big-city districts, she knows plenty of talented people.

Ackerman, who also has promoted some in-house staff to key jobs, said she's been startled by the strong culture of entitlement in Philadelphia.

"So many people believe if you do your time, you're automatically going to rise to a certain level, whether or not you deserve it," said Ackerman. "I've actually had people tell me, 'I've put in my time; this is the job I want.' "

She doesn't work that way, said the superintendent, who said she's not quite finished assembling her team.

One of her inner circle, chief of staff Shawn Crowder, who was hired at a salary of $154,500, was promoted from human resources director.

Three others are familiar to Philadelphia: Tomas Hanna, a former Philadelphia teacher, principal and human resources head, will make $180,000 as chief of school operations. Hanna returned to the district after a stint as an assistant superintendent in Providence, R.I.

Michael Masch, former budget secretary to Gov. Rendell, is chief school business officer. Masch, who was reported to be in line for the $220,000 job long before Ackerman came to town, is a former School Reform Commission and school board member.

Benjamin Wright, who is paid $137,917 as alternative education regional superintendent, was previously regional director for Victory Schools, a private provider that runs several schools in Philadelphia. He also worked as chief administrative officer in Nashville.

The others are new to the district.

Chief academic officer Maria Pitre was formerly an assistant superintendent for middle schools in Baton Rouge, La. Ackerman filled this role herself briefly after veteran Cassandra Jones retired in the spring. Pitre's salary is $180,000.

Ackerman's four "special assistants" - new jobs in the district- are:

Karren Dunkley, a former New York teacher and the cofounder of a nonprofit organization that aids children in developing countries, is paid $85,000. She is responsible for writing, research and strategy.

Frank Pombar, a retired Army colonel, will receive $92,500 to handle safety and facilities matters.

Tracie Teasely, a former reading teacher in North Carolina, assists regional superintendents and provides support to schools. Her salary is $90,000.

Jennie Wu, a former Los Angeles teacher, receives $65,000 to accompany Ackerman on school visits and community meetings. Wu is responsible for follow-up, and also works on "special projects," according to the district. She worked for no pay in June, according to the district.

Ackerman has brought in two deputies into new jobs: Linda Chen, most recently principal of a New York elementary school, is Ackerman's deputy of teaching and learning. Chen was brought in after a shake-up of the curriculum office that led to several veteran leaders leaving the district. Chen is paid $130,000.

David Weiner, who also served as a principal in New York and San Francisco, is the new deputy of accountability - responsible for such tasks as analyzing the achievement gap - at a salary of $130,000.

Ackerman also recruited two of the district's 11 regional superintendents. They are:

Pamela Brown, who supervised English language programs in Phoenix, is the Northwest regional superintendent, at a salary of $137,917, same as all other regional leaders.

Francisco Duran, a former San Francisco principal, will receive nearly $137,917 as Central East regional superintendent.

A final job - director of empowerment school support - is staffed by Darienne Driver, a former Detroit teacher and early childhood specialist. The new position pays $82,000 and targets the district's lowest-performing schools.

Dunkley, Duran, Weiner and Wu were Ackerman's students at the Columbia University Urban Education Leaders Program. Hanna, Pitre and Pombar are all fellows at the Broad Superintendents Academy, where Ackerman was "superintendent in residence."

Brown, Driver and Teasely attended Harvard University's Urban Superintendents Program, for which Ackerman serves as "mentor superintendent."

Ackerman certainly has a right to bring in staff, Gym said, but the superintendent needs to understand that people "are already wary of how the school district has been able to use up all this money, that our schools are still suffering." Vague job titles with job functions that seem to be duplicated elsewhere don't help, Gym said.

Vallas, who brought a similar number of people to the district when he arrived from Chicago in 2002, was known for expanding the size of the central office. But doing a better job than Vallas does not mean much, Gym said.

"He is not a standard," she said.

Greg Wade, president of the district's Home and School Council, said Ackerman has been good for the district in many ways, but he's not so sure about the dollars she's laying out for central office staff.

"There's a lot of gripes about the money. Ackerman is all about the kids and parents, but we're in a bad situation. We don't have enough textbooks. Our schools still need a lot of work. When it comes to spending money, it seems to go to the top echelon," Wade said.


Comparing Central Office

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is taking some heat for her central office staff. Overall, she has spent less money than her predecessor, Paul Vallas. In total, for 19 positions, Vallas spent $2.5 million. Ackerman is spending $1.8 million for 14 positions.

A comparison of selected jobs:

Ackerman's pick as deputy of teaching and learning, Linda Chen, makes $130,000. Cecilia Cannon, the former associate superintendent for curriculum under Vallas, got $153,831.

Michael Masch, Ackerman's chief business officer, is paid $220,000. His predecessor, Jim Doosey, whose title was interim chief financial officer, made $180,250.

Maria Pitre, Ackerman's chief academic officer, has a salary of $180,000. Former interim chief academic officer Cassandra Jones made $231,394.

David Weiner, Ackerman's deputy of accountability, makes $130,000. He replaces LaVonne Sheffield, who received $181,280.

Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or