Cutting the golden parachute
Was Ackerman's cushy contract legally approved?

By Tali Woodward

San Francisco superintendent Arlene Ackerman got a cushy new contract last November on a 4-3 vote by the Board of Education, the swing vote coming from someone defeated at the polls just the week before. Now, a concerned parent and a pair of high-profile lawyers may have found a way to void the controversial contract.

The deal gave Ackerman a $26,000 annual raise and a severance package worth up to $375,000 whether she quits or the board fires her – a provision that has insulated her from new board leaders she's clashed with in the past.

Even some of Ackerman's more ardent supporters have expressed concern. They wonder if it was fiscally responsible for the board to give the superintendent such a large raise when it was grappling with a budget deficit that would later force it to shut down local schools. Plus, the deal was quickly approved at a Friday evening "special meeting" that looked to many like an attempt to avoid scrutiny.

Months later, there may be a way to nullify the contract, according to attorneys Whitney Leigh and Matt Gonzalez – who opened a public interest law firm once Gonzalez finished his term as a city supervisor. It all turns on an obscure section of the California Education Code that Gonzalez and Leigh believe raises doubts about the legality of what they call Ackerman's "sweetheart deal."

They plan to file a writ of mandamus in Superior Court by May 9 requesting that the court invalidate the contract and require Ackerman to refund the payments she has received under it so far.

Controversial contract

Ackerman's employment package spurred criticism both for its generosity and for the manner in which it was approved.

San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) administrators predict a budget shortfall of $22 million for the coming year. To help address that gap, the school board voted April 26 to close four city schools.

But Ackerman's contract extension included a sizable raise (bumping her annual salary up to $250,000), as well as increases to her retirement plan, monthly housing allowance, and paid time off. It also set her up with an 18-month severance package should either she or the board decide they "cannot continue to work compatibly with each other." In other words, Ackerman could walk at any time – and still collect up to $375,000.

Whether the superintendent will stay in San Francisco is a constant topic of speculation. But if she were to announce her departure this June, the November changes to her contract will have her netting $461,074.

"That farewell parting gift is equivalent to keeping Golden Gate Elementary open," said United Educators of San Francisco president Dennis Kelly, who's been a persistent critic of the new contract.

That contract passed only with the vote of board member Heather Hiles, who had lost her seat during the election just 10 days before the meeting. The majority claimed they were merely trying to meet a deadline, but it also seemed they were rushing to give Ackerman a raise before a less supportive contingent took control. Some even said the outgoing majority was undermining the will of city voters, who had bounced Hiles from the board.

Complicating matters, there was evidence that the board did not meet the state-imposed 24-hour deadline for giving notice of the meeting. Board member Mark Sanchez, for instance, said the announcement did not reach his home until 22 hours before the meeting was to convene.

"We were very concerned about the notice of the original action – that it was being done in the dark of night," Kelly said. But when all seven board members showed up at the Nov. 12 meeting, questions about whether it was properly publicized became legally moot.

It's taken another legal issue to reopen debate over the contract.

New questions

An SFUSD parent who was researching an unrelated issue was the first to notice the Education Code provision that has refocused attention on the superintendent's contract. (The parent spoke to the Bay Guardian only on condition of anonymity.)

The statute states that a county superintendent can't increase his or her salary or benefits "without bringing the matter to the attention of the county board of education for its discussion at a regularly scheduled public meeting of the board." The school board's regular meetings occur every other Tuesday, but Ackerman's contract was approved at a special meeting, which can be called at any time, as long as 24-hour notice is given.

We asked attorney and Oakland school board member Dan Siegel, who also served for three years as general counsel to the Oakland Unified School District, what he thought of the situation. "Certainly, if a school district client came to me and said, 'What does this mean?' I would say, 'Put it on a regular agenda,' " he said.

Leigh told us that, in passing this statute, "I think the legislature intended to make certain that before a superintendent's salary was increased, there would be sufficient time for the public to be notified and respond." Instead, he said, "Notice was given on Veteran's Day, 10 days after the election, by a lame duck board the citizens had voted to change."

Gonzalez and Leigh are political allies of the board members who opposed Ackerman's contract. Board member Dan Kelly, a strong supporter of the superintendent who backed her contract extension, told us that because this issue is being raised by attorneys with those connections, "It's not credible."

Kelly said board members Sanchez and Eric Mar "want to fire the superintendent. I think it's a bad idea. I think they're trying to destroy the school district." He pointed out that at the time of the meeting, the board was already past its deadline for evaluating Ackerman. He also defended the increases to her salary and benefits. "It has a small impact financially but a big benefit in terms of the success of the district and keeping a strong leader in place," he said.

SFUSD general counsel David Campos also said approval of the contract was kosher. "Most people who do education law know there is a clear distinction between the laws that govern a county superintendent and a district superintendent," Campos told us. Since Ackerman is both, he said, she is not bound by the provisions aimed at county superintendents. He cited another provision of the Education Code, which states that a superintendent in Ackerman's position "shall have all the powers and duties" of a district superintendent "and also should perform the duties of the county superintendent."

"People are free to make their own arguments, [but] I feel very confident about this," Campos said. A district spokesperson declined to comment further.

Leigh doesn't buy Campos's argument. "I don't think that argument makes sense," he told us. "If the legislature intended to obviate the need for a superintendent's contract to be discussed at a regularly scheduled meeting, it could easily have done so."

E-mail Tali Woodward at tali@sfbg.com.