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Time to Scrap the Superintendent Salary Cap?

Senate bill could be an early step to dismantle Christie's education legacy

teresa ruiz
Sen. Teresa Ruiz

In what could be the first step of many to roll back Gov. Chris Christie's education legacy, the state Senate has released a bill that eliminates Christie's controversial cap on salaries for school superintendents.

The bill would essentially do away with the current $191,000 salary cap for superintendents and return contract control to the districts.

Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), newly appointed chair of the Senate Education Committee, is sponsoring the bill (S-692). She said that while the cap's original intent may have been to rein in excessive compensation packages and cut school spending, its result was to send many of New Jersey's top superintendents to better-paying states.

"Unfortunately, we have seen dozens of superintendents leave their positions since districts lost the ability to offer compensation that is competitive with other states." Ruiz said in a statement. "This was an unintended consequence of the salary caps, and an issue that districts across the state asked that we revisit."

History

When Christie took office in 2010, he held the opinion that many of the superintendents operating in the Garden State were vastly overpaid. At the time, the average superintendent salary was $163,000, landing New Jersey in the top percentile for superintendent payments.

With the support of then-state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, Christie unilaterally set new caps on school superintendent salaries, limiting the base pay to no more than $175,000, depending on the size of the district (some of the smallest could earn no more than $120,000). Christie touted this new cap as a way to save the state close to $10 million. That number wasn't quite the whole picture, however, since it did not account for the cost of performance-based bonuses he built into the regulations.

The rules, made without legislative approval, garnered significant pushback and legal challenges but were ultimately untouched. In response, many of New Jersey's highest-profile superintendents moved to other states including the 2012 superintendent of the year from Ramsey school district Roy Montesano who left for New York state and a salary of $235,000 at the Hastings school district. Other districts fell into a cycle of temporary interim superintendents hired on one- or two-year contracts because they couldn't find anyone to take the position permanently at the capped rates.

By 2017, the Christie administration adjusted the cap to a maximum $191,000, (not including extra merit bonuses) to match cost-of-living increases and competition with other states. Though the original announcement was faced with sharp disapproval, Democrats and advocates largely viewed the cap expansion as a step in the right direction.

At a hearing of the Senate education committee Thursday, Democratic lawmakers and several advocacy groups including the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, New Jersey Association of School Administrators, New Jersey School Boards Association, and Garden State Coalition of Schools, made it clear that they wish to do away with the cap altogether and hope the new Murphy administration will support them.Those testifying in favor of the bill cited a drain on superintendent talent as a result of the cap.

The cap's impact

Several reports back up the claims that the cap served to increase superintendent turnover and has limited district's choice of the best candidates.

The New Jersey School Boards Association put out a report in 2014 examining the impact of the salary cap on the recruitment, hiring, and retention of superintendents statewide. They found that since the cap was initiated, nearly 40 percent of the state's districts experienced high superintendent turnover and in 97 school districts superintendents left because of the cap.

They also concluded in their report and testimony submitted to the Education Committee that though the 2017 revisions were an improvement, "It's still a 'cap within a cap within another cap" as school districts are also subject to the 2 percent tax-levy cap and the statutory limit (2.5 percent) on growth in administrative expenditures.

Debra Bradley the director of government relations for the NJPSA testified at the hearing that the "push-pull" effect of a rotating cycle of superintendents in many districts has been disruptive, and that the possibility for a higher salary at a lower level administrative position has caused many eligible candidates for superintendent to remain in adjacent jobs.

Betsy Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, an advocacy organization representing parents, said that the caps have had "minimal cost effectiveness." She said that GSCS members who have conducted superintendent searches in the past five years say "the pool is smaller, the pool is overall less qualified and many of the candidates that we would have liked to talk to, to provide the kind of visionary leadership that we need to move forward in this state have left and that has limited our options."

Keep the cap

The argument against eliminating the cap is largely supported by Senate Republicans, including Michael Doherty (R-Warren) and Thompson (R-Burlington), who both voted "no" on the bill.

Doherty was opposed on the grounds that no public employee's salary should exceed that of the governor of New Jersey (which is currently $175,000.) - an early argument of Christie's. He said that many of the superintendents who retired prior to the salary cap are currently putting an extra strain on the pension system and that New Jersey has an "affordability problem" that this legislation would exacerbate.

"There's no public-sector job in New Jersey that is more difficult and demanding than that of the governor, and nobody should be paid more," Doherty said. "If you want to make more than $190,000 a year perhaps you should enter the private sector."

The bill was reported out of committee with a vote of 4-2 in favor.

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