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School Superintendents Try Once More to Overturn Cap on Pay

John Mooney | February 6, 2013

Petition to NJ Supreme Court asserts governor’s action overstepped his authority.

Into its third year and no less controversial, the Christie administration’s cap on school superintendent salaries is getting one final legal challenge before the state Supreme Court.

The New Jersey Association of School Administrators and two of the superintendents who first contested the 2011 cap have petitioned the high court to hear their argument that the administration overstepped its bounds.

The appeal’s odds for success are long, after several court rejections of this and various other challenges, including an appellate court defeat last fall.

But with Christie signaling he has no plans to amend the cap and the Legislature mostly silent on the measure, the main plaintiff said it is worth one more shot.

“On the court side, it has been fairly disappointing,” said James O’Neill, the former superintendent of Chatham schools who first brought the case.

“I know it’s tough to even get a hearing and even tougher to get them to overturn a lower court,” said O’Neill, now the interim superintendent in West Orange. “But I thought it was worthwhile for me and also the younger people who are left with this.”

Announced by Christie in late 2010, the caps set what were among the nation’s toughest limits on local school administrator salaries.

Under the new regulations effective in early 2011, new superintendent contracts were limited to set amounts depending on the size of the district, topping out at $175,000 – Christie’s own salary -- for districts with at least 6,000 students. The very largest districts over 10,000 students could exceed the cap with a specific waiver from the commissioner.

The measures – enacted without needing legislative or state Board of Education approval – has turned the superintendent profession on its head in New Jersey.

More than half of all districts have seen superintendent turnover in the last two years with retirements or transfers, with experts and the administrators themselves saying the salary limits were a big contributing factor. More than a dozen superintendents left for jobs in New York and Pennsylvania, where there are no such caps.

Meanwhile, the NJASA and O’Neill were among those contesting the legality of the measure, with their legal argument focusing on the education commissioner’s authority to set salaries that are by statute the dominion of the local Board of Education.

In nearly every case, the courts said the state had wide statutory authority under previous law.

“In this case the Commissioner has done what the Legislature directed -- promulgate a regulation setting standards for contract review that will reduce excessive administrative expenditures,” wrote appellate Judge Jane Grail in October.

The NJASA and O’Neill, along with the third petitioner, Long Hill Superintendent Renee Rovtar, contended that the appellate court’s ruling was in error and actually counter to precedents set by both the education department and the Legislature.

“In making this determination, the Appellate Division relied not on the legislative history (which expresses no intent to cap salaries) but the commissioner’s own statements when the regulations were initially proposed,” read the petition.

The state Attorney General’s office argued it differently, saying the appellate court’s ruling was based on “well-established” principles of statute and code.

“The court soundly reasoned that the commissioner made an adjustment – the salary caps – that conformed to the Legislature’s express direction to focus on per-pupil administrative costs,” the state’s brief read.

The Supreme Court is expected to take several months to decide whether to hear the case.

O’Neill said yesterday that his case and that of Rovtar both involved the administration retroactively cutting their salaries after their contracts had been carried over and before the new regulations were put in place.

But the state still had final approval, and in O’Neill’s case, his salary was cut from just over $200,000 a year to the cap of $165,000 for the Chatham district. O’Neill subsequently retired, but went on to serve as interim superintendent in Roxbury and then West Orange.

Ironically, O’Neill noted that with his pension, he’s actually now paid more than he was before.

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