Opinion: The Hidden Peril in Christie’s Superintendent Salary Caps

Gordon MacInnes | January 6, 2011 | Opinion
Putting a lid on superintendent salaries encourages talented, committed candidates to look for work somewhere else, and that's very bad for the Garden State

Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed salary caps for school superintendents are another excuse for bad behavior on the governor’s part. Christie has taken to tagging supers whose salaries exceed his scale as “greedy” and “arrogant.” And he continues to insist that the $9.8 million to be saved will help cut taxes, even though it is a flyspeck compared with the $24 billion spent for public schools.

Meanwhile, local school boards complain that their autonomy is being compromised by intrusive bureaucrats acting as the governor’s agents.

All of this is unpleasant. And beside the point.

The hidden danger of Christie’s proposal is that it puts New Jersey at a distinct disadvantage to New York and Connecticut in the competition for creative, well-educated, affluent residents.

New Jersey does not have Wall Street, the fashion industry, Broadway or Lincoln Center to draw global tourists, and the country’s brightest and best.

New Jersey’s big advantage has always been that it offers plenty of small towns with pleasant commercial centers, excellent transportation to New York or Philadelphia, and public schools that prepare students for the nation’s best universities.

New Jersey’s Overachievers

New Jersey’s public school students consistently outperform kids in every state save Massachusetts. This is not an accident. New Jersey kids do well because their parents did well. Affluent parents with good educations are the best predictors of kids who will perform best.

Towns like Ridgewood, Summit, Tenafly, Westfield, Chatham, Livingston, Metuchen, Princeton and Haddonfield are crucial to retaining New Jersey’s economic edge, which has been badly blunted by the Great Recession and the decline in telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, financial services and manufacturing — as well as the rise of global competition.

How do major companies decide where to locate their businesses? It’s not about taxes. It’s about the quality and suitability of the workforce. Competition among states is about being able to attract well-educated, enterprising workers who are drawn by high compensation and competitive schools. Ask any realtor about the willingness of young families to pay a premium for a house in a school district like Mountain Lakes or Princeton.

Comparing Costs of Living

There’s another major problem with Christie’s salary ceiling. It ignores the fact that the cost of living is much higher in North Jersey than in South Jersey.

That helps explain why superintendent salaries in 62 of 65 Bergen County school districts exceed the Christie cap. In Hudson County, it’s eight of nine.
But just 2 of 20 superintendents in Gloucester are over the top, with 12 of 28 in Camden County.

Are these discrepancies because North Jersey attracts arrogant and greedy superintendents? Or is it because the ceiling salaries are set too low to match the costs of living in North Jersey?

Then consider this: While incomes tend to be higher in the north, the differences are not great enough to match higher housing costs.

The median household income in Gloucester is about $70,500, roughly comparable to Bergen’s $80,900 but much higher than Hudson’s $56,775. Yet, the average price of a detached house in Bergen ($595,525) is more than twice that of Gloucester ($272,539). A single-family house in much-poorer Hudson costs 44 percent more ($392,880), while the median rent is 14 percent higher. And although household incomes in Camden are higher than those in Hudson ($60K vs. $56K), average monthly housing costs are cheaper by 24 percent.

Cross-Border Killers

The killer for high-income New Jersey districts is prevailing salaries across the border in New York and Connecticut.

While the Governor rails against salaries that exceed his proposed ceiling, superintendent salaries in New York and Connecticut are more than competitive. Scarsdale, Rye Neck, Brewster, Pearl River, Bronxville, Harrison—commuter towns for New York City—all pay their superintendents more than $275,000. Most districts the same size in New Jersey will be limited to $150,000 or $165,000.

The pool of superintendents who can lead a district characterized by highly educated parents with high expectations that their kids will be selected by the most competitive colleges and universities is not a large one. Not only must they satisfy the normal pressures for successful athletic programs, well-maintained and state-of-the art facilities, and compliance with increasingly complicated federal and state requirements, but also they must be able to attract and retain top teachers.

If the Governor’s proposed rule is adopted in February, SAT scores and college acceptances will not be immediately affected in Mountain Lakes, where the current superintendent is paid $77,050 above the proposed $165,000 ceiling. But the chances that a highly motivated professional will take a 32 percent pay cut to accommodate Christie’s idea that superintendents should not earn more than he does are nonexistent. It will be no different when it’s time to find a new superintendent.

Without inspired leadership, the likelihood of attracting and retaining highly educated faculty and administrators diminishes. Quality slips. College admissions officers begin to note the slide, and Mountain Lakes’ graduates are not as well considered as those from Scarsdale or Darien. Housing prices begin to reflect the tumble, but property taxes remain high. Mountain Lakes is seen as less attractive by the enterprising and creative residents New Jersey must attract.

All of this potential damage. And for what? To save $9 million out of the $24 billion spent on public education — a savings that is just 0.09 percent of total school costs.

Even if the consequences of Christie’s ceiling are less dire than predicted here, why take a chance on New Jersey’s future for chump change?