For decades, New Jersey’s county superintendents of schools were hardly headline-making jobs. They were often filled by career educators or state department veterans whose tasks included things like technical assistance on local budgets or tracking school bus routes.
The rules started changing dramatically a few years ago, under a Democratic governor who gave his superintendents broad new powers over budgets and contracts.
Now a Republican governor wants to change things even more -- right down to some of the folks serving as superintendents.
Gov. Chris Christie started the new year by unceremoniously firing seven executive county superintendents, from Cape May to Somerset, each of whose three-year contract was up at the end of 2010.
On Thursday, they received a six-sentence email from Gregg Edwards, the commissioner’s acting chief of staff, that they were out of their $120,000 jobs, effective immediately.
On Monday, a few of the former superintendents were talking publicly, complaining they were never warned of their imminent demise, and, in some cases, indicating they saw themselves as loyal soldiers for the controversial governor.
“Being somewhat naïve, we thought we’d back to work on January 3,” said Trudy Doyle, who served as the Somerset County executive superintendent. "Needless to say, it comes as quite a shock."
The governor’s office said it was the executive branch’s prerogative as to who serves in the three-year posts These have become especially critical positions with Christie planning a full-scale push on his education agenda and a new state commissioner coming on board this month in Chris Cerf.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak yesterday said in an email: "These were holdovers from the prior administration whose terms had expired. It's that simple. The Governor will be filling them with his own nominees."
Drewniak didn’t say when the governor would make the appointments, which are also subject to state Senate confirmation.
Either way, the moves over the holiday break speak to the changing stakes -- and politics -- of the once-quiet job overseeing what is effectively the state department’s field office in each county.
The changes actually began under former Gov. Jon Corzine and his education commissioner, Lucille Davy, who with the legislature gave the county superintendents vast new powers to monitor and trim local budgets, review local contracts, and start the process on regionalizing schools.
Then Christie last year punched up those powers even further, giving the county superintendents more authority in fighting local spending, including tough new caps on administrator pay and proposals to allow the county officials to red-line local labor contracts.
The superintendent salary caps -- among the toughest in the country -- are the most contentious, and the county superintendents had so far fulfilled the governor’s wishes in cracking down on a handful of the labor deals even before the caps were formally in place.
"There was certainly tension on the issue, but we had done what we were asked to do, when to do it," Doyle said yesterday.
In her three years leading the nine-person office, the former Hopatcong assistant superintendent said she had done considerably more as well. For instance, Doyle said she brokered a deal to better coordinate bus routes, saving districts millions, and also help set up a countywide career program for special needs students.
Doyle said she had no illusions that it was a job for life. But she and other county superintendents whose terms were up had asked as recently as December 20 about their fates, she said, never getting a straight answer. She said they still have not been given reasons.
"It’s all hypothesizing on why," she said. “I thought we’d be judged by our work, But then to be told professionally that you are done and not to come back to work, the best word for it is shock, I’m in shock."
The holiday-week purge caught the eye of legislative Democrats, too, who said many of Christie's new spending limits rely on enforcement by these same county superintendents he's now firing.
"I can't imagine how not retaining a third of the county superintendents is in any way appropriate," said state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly education committee. "Not one or two could be retained? It's more than disturbing, very disturbing."
The dismissed superintendents came from the following counties: Burlington, Cape May, Hunterdon, Ocean, Middlesex, Monmouth and Somerset.