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Talks Sought on Easing Much-Debated Caps on Superintendent Salaries

Legislative and legal actions have failed to sway Christie administration, so lawmakers may try joint nonbinding resolution

state Assemblyman David Wolfe (R-Ocean)
Assemblyman David Wolfe (R-Ocean)

After fighting Gov. Chris Christie’s school superintendent salary caps through legislation and even the courts, critics of the pay limits are now trying a softer approach: diplomacy.

The Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools yesterday held a hearing on the pay limits enacted by Christie in 2011, taking testimony from a handful of school organizations and superintendents themselves.

After a wide-ranging discussion that delved into the issue of administrative spending in general, the hearing ended with most agreeing that the next step was to press the administration to consider at least easing the salary caps, which are scheduled to expire in November 2016.

The proposal is likely to come in the form of a joint nonbinding resolution of the state Senate and the Assembly that would effectively call for the state education commissioner to end the caps for contracts entered into or renewed in 2015.

Those contracts already in place would be open to renegotiation when -- and if -- the caps expired, under the proposal offered by the state’s superintendent association.

That’s a big if, of course, as neither Christie nor his administration have given any indication that they would alter the caps as they stand. The administrative could effectively extend the limits on its own.

But a likely prime sponsor of the resolution said afterward that he was hopeful a compromise can be reached.

“Right now it is not a Democratic or Republican issue,” said state Assemblyman David Wolfe (R-Ocean), the joint committee member who called the hearing. “It is an issue that we all feel has to be resolved.”

Wolfe’s standing as a Republican and a deputy minority leader is especially notable, as GOP votes would clearly be needed for Christie to even take notice.

The caps on superintendent salaries on based on enrollment, ranging from $125,000 in the smallest districts to $175,000 in K-12 districts up to 10,000 students. The 16 largest districts in the state, all exceeding 10,000 students, fall outside the caps but still need state approval of new superintendent contracts.

“When it expires, what happens to people who are hired after that?” Wolfe said in an interview. “And also those who are currently in those positions, are they then locked in?”

“We’ll have the wording prepared (for the resolution), and we’ll have the Senate and Assembly review it, and hopefully it would pass,’’ he said.

Still, the hearing seemed to be just a small step in the long-running debate over the caps, which were enacted unilaterally by Christie and then-Education Commissioner Bret Schundler without approval or even public input from the Legislature.

Several legal appeals have fallen short, and a bill to repeal the caps has stalled in the Senate, without even a companion bill in the Assembly.

Yesterday’s hearing largely consisted of representatives of the large school organizations repeating their concerns about the caps and what they have done to leadership in their schools.

Several stressed that phasing out the caps now would not mean that pay would return to the levels before 2011, when salaries well above $200,000 were not unusual and curbing excessive compensation became a popular political cause.

The advocates for lifting the caps cited other limits that would remain in place on overall administrative pay, as well as the statewide 2 percent limit on property tax increases. The state, they noted, would also retain its authority to review all administrative contracts.

“You couldn’t go crazy,” said Melanie Schulz, director of governmental affairs for the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, the superintendents group. “You would have to stay prudent.”

But some committee members, most of them Republicans, were skeptical. State Assemblywoman Donna Simon (R-Hunterdon) said she has asked local school officials what they thought would be a more reasonable level.

When they went as high as $400,000, if necessary, “that was the end of the discussion,” she said.

“Enough is enough,” Simon said. “People are suffocating in taxes.”

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