Christie Pay Caps Bedevil Back-to-School Hires

Millburn brings aboard two new administrators while struggling with unofficial salary caps and new rules regarding tenure

It comes from just one district and it’s not even a school superintendent hire, but Gov. Chris Christie’s controversial new caps on administrative pay are already starting to bring some twists and turns to back-to-school hiring.

And that’s even before the caps are formally approved.

The example comes from Millburn, where its board of education on Tuesday voted to hire a new assistant superintendent and a business administrator, critical but not unusual hires for any district as it enters a new school year.

What was unusual were the new restrictions, with the district saying it was told to keep salaries at roughly $150,000 — below the rate of at least four lower-ranked employees in the district.

Memo from the Front Office

District’s superintendent James Crisfield said he was informed by the state’s county office that these jobs were to be posted for no more than 85 percent of the effective cap for a superintendent, which for a district like Millburn is $177,500.

“We actually could have gone up to $150,850, but stuck with $150,000,” Crisfield said.

What also affected the new hires is that they would be untenured and left prey to new salary caps until they reach the required three years in the district.

Tenured positions below them — such as athletic director, principal and assistant principal — do not fall under the caps. That means those employees can leapfrog past the new hires, since state law — backed by a recent legal ruling — prohibit the state cutting the pay of tenured positions.

“I’m trying to do what any business leader would do, and structure the pay so that it makes sense vertically,” Crisfield said. “But because of the all the uncertainty and how having tenure now has this massive advantage, we even had a couple of candidates withdraw before we had a chance to interview them.”

Nothing In Writing

The uncertainty comes from the fact that the new restrictions aren’t in state regulations as yet, with nothing in writing to even reference. Christie and state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler announced the caps in June, with the plan of posting them for public hearings in the fall and an effective date in December.

But they have yet to be posted and an effective date has not been set. In the meantime, the state’s county superintendents have been told to use them as guidelines for new contracts as part of their existing review powers.

A spokesman for Schundler yesterday said he would not comment on a specific and local situation like Millburn’s, but that the impact on lower-level jobs is something that the administration foresaw as part of the transition to lower pay for administrators in general.

“It’s true that these tenured positions would make more than the capped salaries for a period of time,” said spokesman Alan Guenther. “We’ve acknowledged that situation for some time.”

In Millburn, Crisfield said he was reluctant to speak on the subject, saying he didn’t want to sound like he was just trying to protect his own salary. He is already signed in a five-year contract at $219,500 a year, he said, and subsequently grandfathered from the new caps.

Still, Crisfield said it wasn’t about his salary, but the larger issue of how one pays different people in an organization.

“This is public money, and I understand we’re not the same as a business,” he said. “But setting up a compensation structure, nobody would do it this way.”

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