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Q&A: School Superintendents' Salaries

Can capping superintendent salaries save the Garden State $10 million a year? That depends on who's doing the arithmetic

Question: Are New Jersey’s school superintendents overpaid?
Answer: Gov. Chris Christie thinks many of them are, and he and state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler have put new caps on school superintendent salaries. The guidelines would effectively limit base pay for the vast majority of those administrators to no more than $175,000, depending on the size of the district. For the smallest districts, the cap could be as low as $120,000. The superintendents themselves have said they are paid in line with neighboring states and according to market demand.

Q: What does the data say?
A: Part of the problem is there is no good state-by-state data. By New Jersey’s own estimates, the average superintendent salary last year was $163,000, and that certainly puts New Jersey at or near the top nationally. In this region, however, superintendents draw the highest salaries in the country. A 2008 state study found New Jersey’s $154,000 mean to be slightly below the regional average. New York’s average salary was $158,000.

Q: How will it work?
A: The salaries will be limited by the size of the district or districts served:

  • 1-250 students: $120,000 maximum
  • 251-750 students: $135,000
  • 751-1,500 students: $150,000
  • 1,501-3,000 students: $165,000
  • 3,001-10,000 students: $175,000
  • Over 10,000 students (16 districts): “Subject to separate rules developed by the Department of Education.”

The proposal also calls for performance-based bonuses that could amount to an additional 15 percent. The guidelines for those bonuses are yet to be released, but state officials said they could include extra pay for specified student achievement gains, reduction in dropout rates and other such outcomes.

Q: How is this going affect individual districts?
A: More than three-quarters of districts now pay a base salary to their superintendents that exceeds the state’s new limits. That means when their contracts are up, salary cuts will likely be in order since the state’s executive county superintendents impose the limits and set the performance goals in new contracts.

The impact would be far greater in northern New Jersey, where salaries in virtually every district of counties like Essex, Bergen and Union would be reduced under the new limits. In southern counties like Atlantic and Gloucester, a good majority of superintendents are paid less than the limit.

Q: Has any other state done this?
A: spokeswoman for the American Association of School Administrators said states like New York have limits on certain types of districts, but she knew of no other statewide limits on all districts.

Q: How much money will this save?
A: According to the state Department of Education, the caps if fully realized would save close to $10 million from the $88 million spent last year on superintendent salaries. However, the proposal’s performance-based bonuses of up to 15 percent would surely reduce any savings, and potentially eliminate the savings if a bulk of superintendents qualify. New Jersey’s public schools overall spend about $20 billion a year.

Q: Does the plan need legislative approval?
A: No, the Legislature in 2008 bestowed on the state commissioner vast powers to limit compensation to superintendents. With those powers, Schundler’s office has said it will impose the limits immediately, even without formal regulations in place. The state’s superintendents association has said that neither the law nor existing regulations provide for specific statewide caps and instead speak to weighing different cost of living, work conditions and other factors that are not part of the new limits. Its executive director has said he may challenge the new limits in court.

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