Phila. Extends Hornbeck's Contract for 2 Years
The Philadelphia school board has extended Superintendent David W. Hornbeck's contract until August 2001, despite protests from City Council members and candidates for mayor.
By a 6-3 vote, the board gave the 56-year-old superintendent two more years on the job. Mayor Edward G. Rendell made a rare personal appearance at the school board meeting early last week to praise Mr. Hornbeck's accomplishments and lobby for the extension--which will take the superintendent well into the next mayor's term. Term limits require that Mr. Rendell, a Democrat, leave office at the end of this year.
The new contract also gives Mr. Hornbeck, who earns $167,000 a year, the opportunity to negotiate the district's next contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of Teachers affiliate that represents the city's 13,000 teachers. The union has been a highly vocal critic of the superintendent, whose four-year tenure has been marked by controversy.
But school board members who voted for the extension credited Mr. Hornbeck with placing achievement at the top of the 215,000-student district's agenda.
"David has proven himself to be the nontraditional superintendent we were seeking," Pedro Ramos, the board's vice president, said in an interview. "The improvements have been across race, class, neighborhood, and first-language groups, and student performance is the bottom line in measuring the superintendent's performance."
Supporters note that under Mr. Hornbeck's leadership, the percentage of Philadelphia students who scored "below basic" on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition fell from 70 percent in 1996 to 59 percent last year.
Mr. Hornbeck greeted the extension confidently, saying he was pleased but not surprised. "The fact is, we've made dramatic progress in Philadelphia over the four and a half years, both in terms of achievement and a whole lot of input stuff," he said.
In an interview last week, the superintendent added that "I want to stay in the job until what we have done is so institutionalized that it will take the next team more effort to undo it than it has taken us to get it into place."
But three of the six mayoral hopefuls are on record as opposing the two-year extension, saying the new mayor should be able to have a say in the choice of a superintendent at the end of the next school year.
"Every study made of governing structure has recommended that the superintendent's term should run concurrently with that of the mayor," said John F. White Jr., a former City Council member and state representative who is among the five Democratic mayoral contenders. "I called for the contract not to be extended beyond July 2000 so the mayor can decide early in the administration whether Hornbeck's leadership should be continued. Unfortunately, the mayor chose to ignore those recommendations of myself, the City Council, and other educational advocates." Mr. White added that he had doubts about Mr. Hornbeck's leadership. "While his ideas are great, I question whether he has the kind of skill to form the necessary coalitions."
Nine of the 15 City Council members entered the fray with a last-minute letter asking the board to give the schools chief just a one-year extension.
"Such a situation would make clear to the citizens of Philadelphia that the mayor and the school superintendent were working together to move our schools forward," the Jan. 28 letter said. It also emphasized that the council members who signed the letter were not evaluating Mr. Hornbeck, whom they credited with progress in some areas and with having a commitment to children.
Questions of Leadership
Almost from the start, Mr. Hornbeck has drawn criticism for alienating influential groups, notably the teachers' union, and for what some see as inflexibility. For years, he has battled with Pennsylvania's Republican governor, Tom Ridge, over the amount of state aid the district should receive. ("An Annual Rite in Philadelphia: Hornbeck Duels State Over Budget," March 18, 1998.)
Jacques Lurie, a school board member who voted against the contract extension, said it would reduce the new mayor's involvement in a vital area of city government.
"Appointing a superintendent who will serve at least a year and a half into the next mayor's term is to give the future mayor the ability to say for a year and a half that the school system 'is not my problem,' " he said. "I firmly believe the mayor and the city ought to have input into the school system," Mr. Lurie added, noting that the city sets the tax rate that goes to pay for nearly half the district's annual $1.5 billion budget.
A $150 million budget shortfall looms in the coming fiscal year, with Mr. Hornbeck insisting on summer school, reduced class sizes, and intensive tutoring, among other programs, for next year.
"I agree we're not adequately funded," Mr. Lurie said, "but given the constraints, the question is whether there are enough dollars in the classroom and too many in administration."
Contract Coming Up
Mr. Hornbeck said one advantage of the extension is that he will be able to negotiate the next teachers' contract, which comes up for renewal next year. The superintendent said he would seek significant but not "radical" changes. "We probably have in Philadelphia the single most rigid seniority system in the nation," he said.
Some of his most bitter and persistent critics are associated with the union. Jack Steinberg, the director of educational affairs for the PFT, said last week that cynicism among teachers is at an all-time high. He accused the superintendent of pursuing educational fads while ignoring research-backed programs and "demonizing" the union. "If you try to change what's happening," he said, "you are labeled as evil and demeaning to children."
Vol. 18, Issue 22, Page 3