Fine Print: NJASA v. Rochelle Hendricks

John Mooney | January 19, 2011 | Education
Statewide legal challenge to superintendent salary caps names acting commissioner of education Hendricks or her successor

Synopsis: The New Jersey Association of School Administrators (NJASA) has filed a statewide challenge to Gov. Chris Christie’s controversial caps on superintendent pay, naming acting education commissioner Rochelle Hendricks, among others.

Why it matters: This is the first challenge to the caps that goes statewide, following challenges in Parsipanny/Troy Hills, Westfield and Hoboken that spoke only to state actions against contracts in those districts.

What’s at stake: Not much in the short term, since the caps go into effect in three weeks, on February 7, and it is unlikely the court will rule before then. But the legal fight is sure to determine the long-term fate of Christie’s plans to limit most superintendents’ pay to no more than his own $175,000 salary, arguably the toughest pay limits in the country. The caps would range from $125,000 to $175,000, depending on the district’s enrollment.

What’s different in this suit? Richard Bozza, executive director of the superintendents group, said this is a preemptive move to contest the state’s imposition of the caps before the regulations were formally in place and to challenge the commissioner’s right to enact such limits without state law. It alleges the state has not acted in good faith by delaying reviews of two contracts — in the Chathams and Long Hill — until the regulations are in place and specifically cites a memo from Hendricks on November 15 that ordered her county offices not to approve any new contracts exceeding the proposed caps, nearly three months before they were to take effect.

Key line: “As is evident from the November 15, 2010 Memorandum from Defendant Hendricks, Defendants seek to delay review and approval of superintendent contracts for an unreasonable length of time, and until proposed regulations which purport to reduce and cap superintendent salaries take effect.”

Hendricks own fate: While named as a defendant in the case, Hendricks is soon to be succeeded by Chris Cerf as New Jersey’s education commissioner. Recognizing that, the suit names Hendricks “or her successor” as plaintiffs, while also explicitly citing Hendrick’s November memo. She is expected to remain in the department, potentially as an assistant or deputy commissioner.

What are its prospects: Hard to say, with state law giving the state commissioner considerable powers over local school budgets. But the law also sets the power to determine salaries at the local level, and a fundamental question on the NJASA suit is whether the new regulations are violation of the constitutional separations between the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Crowded docket: This case has been filed in state Superior Court, while the Parsipanny case is in chancery division and the Westfield case in state appellate court. Bozza predicts they very well could be joined.