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New Supers, New Approaches, New Ideas -- At Least That's the Theory

Superintendent salary caps are attracting a new class of applicants, but do they have the experience to get the job done?

The Christie administration's controversial caps on school superintendent salaries last year helped create an exodus of district leaders out of state, as well as a few legal challenges.

But drawing less attention has been the changing face of superintendent searches and hires.

The state's School Boards Association is reporting that its work in assisting districts with superintendent searches is seeing the expected drop in experience in those seeking to fill the vacated positions.

But according to Jane Kershner, director of field services for the association, the relaxed standards also afford a chance for new talent, with its presumably new approaches and ideas, to take leadership jobs, a point espoused by Gov. Chris Christie in imposing the caps in the first place.

"There seems a buzz of excitement where that next level is seeing the opportunity to move up," said Kershner, whose office assists in about two-thirds of superintendent searches at a given time. "In a way, it's reenergized the field."

Those same searches have also drawn a noticeable increase in the number of applicants, she said, especially in south and central New Jersey where the caps have had a less severe effect on salaries.

Middle Management

"More people from middle management are seeing this as an opportunity to move up," said Kershner. "They are seeing opportunities they never have before."

Some might say that this opportunity comes with the risk that less qualified people are moving into these high-stakes positions.

Where districts once required superintendent experience, now it is often a preference. Some are drawing the line at candidates at least having been principals or in other supervisory posts. This is the case with current job postings in Plainfield and Old Bridge, for example.

The state’s superintendents’ association, which has strenuously opposed the caps, is among those that have expressed worry about the drain of experience and talent.

"The jury is still out,” said Anne Gallagher, the association’s communications director. “It is extremely early in this new process to make an informed and intelligent assessment of the situation.

“History can demonstrate an experienced superintendent brings to the table a wealth of leadership skills with a track record that will maintain and improve the high quality of academic standards within a district."

Twice as Fast

It was the School Boards Association's tally last spring that reported that New Jersey superintendents were retiring or leaving their districts at twice the typical rate of the past. In Bergen County, half of the districts saw a turnover in their top leadership, the association said.

Much of it was attributed to the new caps imposed on superintendent pay by the Christie administration last year, topping out at $175,000 in base salary for most districts, depending on enrollment.

In effect, for all new and renewed contracts, starting in January, the caps were put in place unilaterally through regulation and brought immediate challenge from superintendents and their statewide organization. They contended it was an unlawful reduction in the administrators' pay, and a series of court challenges remain pending in state appellate court.

In the meantime, superintendents have left the job in rising numbers, with clearly the cut in pay -- and the commensurate pensions -- having an impact. Others have cited the increased pressures on school districts in general, especially under new spending limits overall.

Super Stability

The number of applicants to replace those who are leaving isn't up everywhere, Kershner said. In the northern end of the state where superintendent salaries were typically well above $175,000, the numbers may even be down slightly. And the numbers also fluctuate with the size of the districts, she said, with larger districts with higher pay naturally more attractive.

One thing that has not happened is districts looking for candidates without any education experience, an opportunity now afforded to certain districts under another Christie initiative, which allows for alternative certification.

"We have not seen that at all," Kershner said.

Still, either way, she stressed that even as years of education experience may be the tangible measure that comes with a candidate, it isn't always the determining one.

"In the end, after the interviews, it isn't the experience as much as whether the person is a good fit with the board and the community," she said.

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