Jersey City Super Comes Up Against Christie Salary Cap

Nearly $70,000 separates Superintendent Epps' proposed contract and what the state is willing to approve -- at least so far

While Gov. Chris Christie has been outspoken in taking on high superintendent salaries across the state, a quieter tug-of-war has taken place in the state-operated Jersey City schools, where Superintendent Charles Epps Jr. remains in limbo over the fate of his contract renewal.

A spokesman for New Jersey’s education department confirmed yesterday that the state would only approve in the district’s 2011-2012 budget a salary of no more than $204,125, well below the nearly $270,000 that Epps was seeking in his next contract.

But the matter isn’t entirely put to rest, by any means. That same contract, approved by the local school board, remains under review by the state’s Hudson County office, said spokesman Alan Guenther. It calls for a $268,000 salary, plus $10,000 each for expenses and an annual annuity, he said.

Separately, a group of community advocates have gone to court to contest the validity of that contract renewal, saying the district’s school board did not follow proper procedure in approving the pact.

The matter first arose last summer, when the local board moved to extend Epps’ contract and the Christie administration balked.

Heated debate erupted in the board’s meetings over Epps’s decade of leadership of New Jersey’s second-largest district. Supporters contended he has brought improvements; opponents say far too many schools remain failing.

After relative quiet through the winter, the Christie administration this week sent its latest signal to how far it would go, at least for the time being. Guenther said that it was for the moment keeping Epps to the new pay limits set on all superintendents.

Those limits — which have sparked a furor in more than a half-dozen districts — restrict a majority of superintendents to a base pay of between $125,000 and $175,000, depending on enrollment. Superintendents can also be paid extra for meeting approved goals and other criteria.

Epps would fall under the $175,000 limit, Guenther said. He also would be entitled to an additional $2,500 for leading a K-12 district and another 15 percent bonus for meeting performance goals, bringing the maximum to the $204,125 in the budget.

Under the statewide regulations adopted this winter, districts like Jersey City, with over 10,000 students, could apply to the state education commissioner for a waiver from the salary cap. But Guenther said no waiver had been applied for in Jersey City.

“No waiver has been requested or reviewed,” he said.

Efforts to reach Epps or officers of Jersey City’s school board were unsuccessful last night.

One of the community activists involved in the separate legal challenge said their complaint was more about how Epps’ contract renewal was approved by the local board. The challenge in administrative court contends the board acted without proper notice, limiting the chance for public input.

“It is not about the money, but the ability to have a search and a fair process,” said Shelley Skinner, who has long been a critic of Epps. “And there is nothing stopping Dr. Epps from being considered in that search.”

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