Room at the Top: More than Half of NJ’s School Supers Are New to Their Jobs

John Mooney | September 19, 2012 | Education
Salary caps, retirement, a job elsewhere: what's pushing NJ's superintendents to move on?

Another year, another torrent of turnovers at the top of New Jersey school districts, as close to a third welcome new superintendents this fall, according to the latest statistics by the state school boards association.

More than 180 districts said goodbye to their superintendents in the past year, almost half of them retiring, according to the association. The impact was spread pretty much throughout the state: 12 superintendents retired in Monmouth County, 11 more in both Camden and Bergen

With nearly as many superintendents leaving statewide the year before, more than half of all districts have welcomed new bosses in the past two years. The school boards association said those are record highs, with some years seeing fewer than one-tenth of districts turn over.

The exact reasons for the departures are yet to be tabulated or compared with previous years, but much of the blame — or credit, depending on the perspective — continues to center on the state’s controversial two-year-old cap on superintendents’ salaries.

Limiting base pay in most districts to a maximum of $175,000, depending on a district’s size, the caps have been hotly debated since Gov. Chris Christie unilaterally imposed them in late 2010.

That set off a number of legal challenges that continue today, including two complaints that will hear oral arguments on Thursday in Newark before the state appellate court.

The specific stories vary with the districts. A number lost their superintendents to even higher-paying posts outside the state, including Sparta and Montclair. Other supers chose to retire once their pre-cap contracts were up, possibly cutting short their careers but also protecting their pensions.

“A lot of baby boomers are starting to make choices in their careers, and when the choice is to retire or to cut their pay, they are choosing to do something else,” said Richard Bozza, the executive director of the state’s superintendents association and a leading critic of the caps.

“The most frustrating part is I meet with a fair number of superintendents even in their 40s, and they can never get a raise again and even people working around them are making more money,” he said.

But others say it has also afforded chances for new leadership at a time when districts are facing mounting pressure when it comes to budgets and performance.

“We had thought maybe it would slow down, but it certainly has not,” said Jane Kershner, director of field services for the New Jersey School Boards Association. “I think there are going to be a couple more years where we can anticipate more and more searches.”

Kershner’s office conducts superintendent searches, and she said it has been involved in about 40 in the past two years. A multitude of factors come into play, some supers are simply retiring; others are moving to larger districts for greater opportunities and pay.

She added that the new crop has so far been able to deal with challenges involving student and teacher accountability.

“But I would say we are not seeing a drop-off [in talent],” she said. “We’re telling boards that they don’t need to settle.”

The caps themselves will be put to the test in the coming days and weeks, as landmark legal challenges first filed in late 2010 start to be heard.

Some decisions have been anticlimactic, including a case out of Westfield that was remanded to the state’s education commissioner, Chris Cerf, on technical grounds, Bozza said.

But the cases on the docket Thursday are two of the earliest and will test whether the state’s commissioner at the time, Rochelle Hendricks, had the legal authority to impose the caps either unilaterally or at all.

One of the contracts subject to challenge was for former Chatham superintendent James O’Neill, whose pay was limited by the state before the caps were formally in place.