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Is outgoing school Superintendent Arlene Ackerman worth a huge severance package and $45,000 in credit card charges? Find out where you stand!

Wednesday, Feb 15 2006
Arlene Ackerman, who became superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District in 2000, announced last fall that she would be leaving her post at the end of this year because her strained relationship with several Board of Education members had become untenable. Her exit, however, has been just as rocky as her tenure. Amid contentious labor negotiations with the teachers' union, questions about the efficacy of her "Dream Schools" initiative, and the fiscally motivated closure and relocation of 14 schools last month, Ackerman negotiated a $375,000 severance package with the school district. Supervisors have passed a resolution asking Ackerman to rescind the money, followed by the disclosure that Ackerman racked up $45,625 in credit card expenses in 2005, mostly on fancy meals, airplane tickets, and hotels; the charges have been reimbursed by the district at taxpayer expense. Although Ackerman's contract authorizes a Diners Club account, board members have asked to see the receipts. Are you an apologist for Arlene Ackerman's expensive exit from San Francisco? Take our quiz and find out!

1) School board members who have antagonized Ackerman during the past five years have, unsurprisingly, voiced criticism of her dining tastes at a time when the district faces immense financial pressures. "It just seems astronomical to me," says board member Eric Mar. "Some of it is very lavish given that we are a public agency in a financial crisis and serving children." Do you agree with Mar's assessment of the situation?

A) Yes, it's like the "No Wine List Left Behind" initiative.

B) Nah. What's $45,000 -- like, two full teacher salaries? Fine, a kid doesn't learn trigonometry. The calamari was exquisite.

C) You have to understand: When you only make $250,000 a year, you don't have money left over to spend on things like food.

2) Board member and Ackerman ally Jill Wynns has preached conciliation between her colleagues and the superintendent, who took more than 30 business-related trips last year and is a member of several national educational organizations. "I think the whole thing is silly," Wynns says. "This is the cost of doing business and doing it well." What do you think?

A) But did Ackerman do it well? And whose business?

B) Actually, Jill, this is the cost of eating food -- and eating it extravagantly.

C) And remember: Previous Superintendent Bill Rojas racked up credit card charges for political contributions and travel to New York to complete his doctoral studies. In comparison, Ackerman's like the teacher in Stand and Deliver.

3) In San Francisco, Ackerman footed the bill for lunches and dinners with lawyers, school board members, city officials, and reporters. She ate at some of the priciest spots in town: Jardinière, Hayes Street Grill, Palomino, and Morton's. What do you think of her choice in restaurants?

A) I take it the upstairs area at Chez Panisse just wouldn't do.

B) Sure as hell beats irradiated meat in the school cafeteria.

C) So that's why I couldn't get a table.

4) Before the Board of Supervisors, led by Gerardo Sandoval, passed its resolution calling on Ackerman to forgo the severance money, a group of 1,500 parents had signed a petition along identical lines. But they had been unable to present the petition to Ackerman, because she had stopped attending school board meetings. Do you think Ackerman's severance package amounts to a "platinum parachute," as Sandoval has termed it?

A) No, no, no. Only the strings are made of platinum. The parachute itself is pure gold, inlaid with diamonds and caviar.

B) Nah, $375,000 seems perfectly reasonable -- God, why didn't I get into public education and strike it rich, like my parents suggested?

C) Don't do it, Arlene. Don't jump! (Bonus point for adding: "And in fairness to her, would you want to sit through those board meetings, even for $250,000 a year?")

5) Supporters of Ackerman, the city's first black superintendent, have suggested that racism lies behind the supervisors' resolution and the school board's questions about her credit card expenses. The Rev. Amos Brown of Third Baptist Church has urged the supervisors "to leave the school district alone," and Waukeen McCoy, a member of the city's Ethics Commission and an attorney working for Ackerman, told the Chronicle: "If she were not an African American woman, she wouldn't be going through this." What do you think?

A) Wait a minute. McCoy is Ackerman's attorney and on the city's Ethics Commission? If only a city could generate taxes in accordance with the amount of painful irony its political structure produces.

B) Ah, the good reverend. Haven't heard from you in a while, Amos. Guess it's been a few years since Willie said something to embarrass himself, hasn't it?

C) I think $375,000 buys a lot of legal advice.

6) Ackerman has denied doing anything improper with her credit card, and has reimbursed the district about $4,000 over the past year. In the wake of the scandal, she has stopped using the card, has given it to a board member for safekeeping, and says she wishes the matter could have been brought up in a nonpublic setting. What do you think of her assertions?

A) A nonpublic setting? You mean like a fancy, well-known restaurant that you're paying for with taxpayer money? One of those nonpublic settings?

B) Which board member has the card? Check the reservation list at Gary Danko!

C) Here's my question: Did she at least earn some air miles for all this? Please say she belonged to a rewards program.

7) And, finally, how do you think a school district can measure the worth of a nationally known superintendent like Ackerman in terms of dollars?

A) Arlene Ackerman ... $250,000.

B) Dinner at Jardinière ... $450.

C) Paying way too much money for an educator's national reputation, only to create an embarrassing public spectacle with the board, anger parents, shut schools, and shortchange kids in the process ... priceless.

How to score:

Score zero points for every "A" answer, one point for every "B," and two points for every "C."

0-6 points: Look on the bright side. The district saved almost $2.5 million by closing all those schools -- money that can now be spent on overpriced pasta.

7-10 points: So does this mean that dinner with Arlene is off?

11-14 points: Congratulations! You're a true apologist for Arlene Ackerman. And, yes, we hear there are some very lucrative severance packages in the University of California system, if she's interested ....

About The Author

Matt Palmquist


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