Abington School Superintendent Amy Sichel has gained national recognition and high marks from school board members and colleagues, but the generous terms of a recent contract extension for the state's highest-paid superintendent have raised concerns in the Montgomery County district.
Her $304,532 annual salary gets bumped up to $319,714 on July 1 - even before a just-inked five-year pact goes into effect in February.
"It's very sensitive right now," said Phyllis Jablonowksi, chairwoman of the Abington Educational Foundation, a fund-raising group that works with the district.
Sichel's salary is higher than William Hite's, the Philadelphia schools chief, who makes $300,000. Hite has responsibility for about 142,000 students who attend the city’s conventional public schools; Abington, with 7,600 students, is one of the state's smaller districts.
In an interview, Sichel said her high salary was a by-product of her performance and longevity - at 15 years, her tenure is triple the state average. She said that had spared the district from costly searches and buyouts. She added that she has declined many offers to jump to other districts where she would have been paid even more.
"I think I've proved in terms of the product I delivered and from the accomplishments we've made that we're all worthy," she said.
Evidently the school board agrees. It voted unanimously last month to keep her at the helm, no matter the cost.
Sichel "has done a fantastic job," said Raymond McGarry, an 18-year Abington school board member and current president. "When you do a good job and are at a place for long time, obviously your salary is going to be higher than a superintendent with just a few years. She's one of the best superintendents in the state and should be paid for it, and she is."
He and others say Sichel has earned every penny since she was promoted to superintendent in 2001.
Sichel recalled that at one of her first meetings with the board to discuss academic goals, a board member directed a comment to her that took her by surprise: "There's some unwritten goals we want accomplished.
"We want, during your tenure, for this district to be highlighted on the local, state, and national level," the board member told her. "I looked at him and said: 'You've got to be kidding me. That's a goal for me?' "
Sichel said she took that challenge to heart and now, at 62, is ready for another five-year run.
In addition to her trailblazing salary, Sichel's contract allows for annual performance bonuses. On July 1, she is slated to get a bonus "not less" than what she received in November, which was $26,102, business manager Christopher Lionetti said.
Her new deal also calls for a series of retention bonuses - $15,000 in 2017, $30,000 in 2018, and $20,000 in 2019, as well as lifetime health coverage for her and her husband and other benefits and perks, including 30 days of vacation.
The unanimous board vote notwithstanding, Sichel's latest pay increase has raised eyebrows.
"I think that it probably has taken some people by surprise, certainly myself included, that the Abington school district superintendent position is the highest paid in the state," Jablonowksi said.
One board member who wasn't able to attend last month's meeting, Daniel Sean Kaye, effusively praised Sichel's work but also said that he "struggled" with her pay and that he probably would have voted against her new contract.
"It's a lot of money. . . . It's just a ton of money," Kaye said. "It's hard for me to reconcile myself with anybody making that sort of money."
No one disputes that Sichel kept her promise to board members to become a tireless promoter of Abington schools.
When the district pledged to close the achievement gap between students in the economically diverse district, Sichel cowrote a chapter for an academic book to promote its success. She didn't just get involved in superintendents' groups, but became president of the 13,000-member American Association of School Administrators, and was recognized as the top superintendent in 2010 by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
Sichel's paycheck is just part of her extraordinary career in Abington. In an era when some neighboring districts measure their superintendent stays in months rather than years, the school psychologist with a doctorate has been with the district for nearly four decades, starting in 1976 as an elementary school counselor.
"When you've been doing it for as long as I have, there's stability and predictability and constancy," said Sichel, who lives in the district and has two grown children who attended Abington schools.
Sichel is also at the vanguard of a growing movement of female superintendents, slowly breaking through what once was a bulletproof glass ceiling in U.S. education. When she started in Abington, barely 1 percent of the nation's superintendents were women, but the last survey in 2010 shows an increase to 24 percent, and their ranks continue to grow.
Board member Andrea Lawful-Trainer, who, like Kaye, was unable to attend the May meeting, acknowledged she had "concerns" about the size of Sichel's paycheck, but said that Sichel's record has convinced her that she's worth it.
"I have heard people question it. . . . 'Why is she getting paid so much money? It's taxpayer dollars,' " Lawful-Trainer said. "We let them know we haven't cut any programs or cut any teachers, and we still have a decent fund balance. She's not only making a good salary, but she has a thriving school district to show for it."
Abington, which borders Northeast Philadelphia and includes Rockledge Borough, is one of the region's more diverse school districts, socially and economically. About 20 percent of the students are on free or reduced-fee lunch, a slight increase in recent years, and the student body is about 22 percent black, 6 percent Asian, 2 percent Latino, and close to 70 percent white.
The high school was ranked 49th in the state in the latest U.S. News & World Report survey, placing it in the top 8 percent statewide, but behind 20 other high schools in the region, including Upper Merion, Avon Grove, Penncrest, and New Hope-Solebury High Schools. It also placed behind 21 other high schools in the 2013-14 Pennsylvania School Performance Profiles.
Sichel said a major success has been narrowing the achievement gap between affluent and underprivileged kids.
Just over 10 years ago, the high school curriculum was overhauled to reduce "tracks" and to challenge students who once might have been shunted aside into a trajectory of low performance. "You can't expect all kids to achieve if some kids got algebra and some kids got 'almost' algebra," Sichel said.
Since the changes, she said, the number of Abington grads moving on to higher education rose from about 80 percent to roughly 90 percent.
She also seems to have navigated successfully some of the rough seas that have rocked other school administrators across Pennsylvania. Property taxes have been stable, and during the wave of school budget crises in 2011, unionized teachers and staff offered to take a one-year pay freeze.
As just the fourth female elected as its president of the 150 year-old AASA, Sichel has forged close ties with other female educators.
Sichel isn't afraid to speak her mind on a range of topics, whether it's giving students free laptops - "Why you would spend money to do something the vast majority of your community can do it themselves?" - to expanding prekindergarten, which she strongly advocates. Or her salary.
"I'm 100 percent committed," she said. "I do this job in a 24/7 approach. People like to say, 'What does that mean?' Well, last night at 10:20 I got an e-mail from a board member and a parent. I answered it. They pay me a lot of money to be available, and I am. There's not a vacation I take that I'm not connected. I don't do what other people do, say I'm off the grid."
BY THE NUMBERS
Students in the Abington district
Abington graduates who go on to
salary as of July 1
Superintendents who were women in 2010
of the 150-year-old American Association of School Administrators, including Sichel
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