Another Cap from Christie, This Time for School Superintendents

John Mooney | July 16, 2010
New plan would limit superintendent salaries to $175,000 -- just what the governor earns -- and could go as low as $120,000

In his campaign to bring down public education costs, Gov. Chris Christie yesterday turned school administration pay on its head.

Christie and education commissioner Bret Schundler announced a unilateral move to cap the vast majority of future superintendent salaries in the state to no more than $175,000 – Christie’s own salary — depending on the size of their districts. For those with 250 students or fewer, the cap would be as low as $120,000.

The plan also calls for merit or performance incentives of up to 15 percent of base pay, with the state largely setting the goals, with some input from local boards.

In a press conference held in a Spotswood elementary school, Christie said superintendent pay — averaging this year about $167,000 last year — “has gotten out of control.”

‘No Longer Afraid’

“This is a new day for superintendent pay in New Jersey,” Christie said, “and I think it will lead a trend across the country. Everyone knows this is right to do, but people are afraid to take the first step. New Jersey is no longer afraid.”

Schundler said there was no link between size of a district or the performance of a district and the amount it pays its superintendent, citing one district with fewer than 250 students that pays its top official $230,000.

“We decided it was time to bring some rationality to the system” he said.

Potentially taking effect by the end of the year and not needing legislative or State Board of Education approval, the move could effectively give pay cuts to two thirds of all school administrators now exceeding the limits when their current contracts are up, Schundler’s office said.

The Northern Counties

The bulk of them are in the northern half of the state, with virtually all of Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Morris and Union counties’ superintendents being overpaid by Christie’s standards.

South Hackensack’s superintendent position would see its $240,000 salary cut in half, the largest single cut in the state, followed by the Morris-Union Jointure district and Ridgefield Park, each paid close to $100,000 more than Christie’s new rules would allow.

Of the 20 most “underpaid,” 17 are in South Jersey districts, including Hamilton Township, Bellmawr and Willingboro. Only one South Jersey district is in the 20 districts most over the limits, the Burlington County Special Services District.

In one caveat, the pay for superintendents in the 16 districts with the very largest enrollments — including Newark and Elizabeth but also Brick and Cherry Hill — will still be left at the discretion of the commissioner. The highest of them is Newark’s Clifford Janey, with a base pay of $284,000.

Shaking Up the System

But it’s not just superintendents. The move could also jolt entire pay systems below the top position, with scores of assistant superintendents and other top staff — including a few principals — possibly making more than their bosses. Non-tenured administrators would face similar limits, but tenured ones would at most face pay freezes.

Much of the job of sorting it all out will be left to officials like Patrick Piegari, the state’s executive county superintendent in Middlesex and the final arbiter of all administrative salaries in that county already.

Under compensation limits already imposed on superintendents in 2007, the county superintendents must sign off every contract of top administrators. Now will come the task of matching those contracts with the detailed new guidelines that the department said would be filed in the next month, with plans for final adoption by the end of 2010.

Attending the press conference yesterday, Piegari said the squeeze on all administrative positions may lead many current principals and assistant superintendents — typically next up for the superintendent jobs — to forego the promotion.

‘A New Wave’

“There will be a turnover, and as a result the colleges and districts will have to do more to prepare more people to go into the field,” he said. “It’s going to take a while, and I think you will see a new wave of people coming in.”

There are many other questions as well, such as how the performance incentives will be developed to provide the extra pay and, in effect, the only raises available under the new rules?

How will the new limits affect interim superintendents who fill vacancies for months at a time, an increasing practice for many districts as they struggle to find superintendents? And how will this affect those superintendent searches now ongoing, of which there are at least three dozen, including in Somerville, Madison and Haddon Heights?

“Obviously, major changes in compensation could affect the pool of qualified chief school administrators available to New Jersey school districts,” said Marie S. Bilik, executive director of the state’s school boards asociation.

A Surprise Move

The breadth of Christie’s move caught many by surprise, with the state’s superintendents group being apprised of the impending announcement only on Wednesday.

“This is not comprehensive reform,” said Richard Bozza, the executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. “This is a political gesture that doesn’t recognize the facts.”

The 9.5 percent of total school spending on administration is the ninth lowest share in the country, below the national average of 10.8 percent, he said. A study conducted in 2007 found that New Jersey superintendent pay at the time was below the average of neighboring states.

This is hardly the first time the superintendents have been political targets of governors. Nearly two decades ago, it was former Gov. Jim Florio who ended tenure for superintendents, a move that many say led to a free agency in the position and its ever-escalating wages.

A Scathing Report

In 2007, then-Gov. Jon Corzine imposed new limits on the extra compensation that superintendents receive in sick pay and other compensation, after a scathing state investigative report. Some of those restrictions are still under challenge in state court by Bozza’s group.

But Bozza said this time may be the toughest yet for his members, saying he’s heard of one superintendent coming from out of state who already backed out when hearing rumors of the new limits. He expected many more now on the job to retire once their contracts are up.

“It seems to me a policy on the run,” he said. “If I was a superintendent and about to take a pay cut, it would almost make sense to apply to be a principal.”

But few at the Spotswood press conference had much sympathy for superintendents who choose to leave rather than face the new limits. Christie put it bluntly: “If that’s the sole reason they’re here, then good bye.”