Ever since Gov. Chris Christie in late 2010 imposed tight limits on school superintendent pay, there was the presumption that this issue would ultimately have to be decided in the courts.
As more and more superintendents left their districts, and the state Legislature remained largely silent, a stream of legal challenges was the superintendents’ best hope for loosening the caps that cut back salaries across the state.
Yesterday, those hopes proved fleeting. A state appellate court ruled — with particularly strong language – to uphold the caps, leaving school leaders grappling with what to do next.
In a 27-page decision that came less than a month after oral arguments, the three-judge panel said that the two superintendents who had brought the main challenge had no grounds to claim that the administration had overstepped its bounds when implementing the strict salary limits.
“In this case the Commissioner has done what the Legislature directed — promulgate a regulation setting standards for contract review that will reduce excessive administrative expenditures,” wrote appellate Judge Jane Grall.
The caps limit superintendent salaries depending on the size of the district, from $125,000 in the smallest to $175,000 — equal to the governor’s salary — in larger ones. In roughly a dozen districts with more than 10,000 students, there is broader discretion but salaries still need to be approved by the state.
By the Book
The judges said that the administration had acted within the Legislature’s own laws, which give the state broad powers in controlling school costs.
Many of the laws it cited were enacted five years ago — before Christie took office — in the aftermath of revelations that some school leaders were padding their pay with exorbitant compensation packages.
The court also shot down the plaintiffs’ arguments that the administration had put the limits in place before the regulations were finished by essentially blocking any new contracts from being approved.
And it refuted the argument that the administration usurped the rights of local boards to set salaries, instead saying that the new caps only set guidelines that local boards must follow.
“The effect is wholly consistent with the Legislature’s primary goal in providing oversight of school district spending and not inconsistent with the board’s statutory authority to fix salary,” Gall wrote for the court.
Richard Bozza, the executive director of the state’s superintendents association, which was also a plaintiff in the challenges, said yesterday that the association was inclined to appeal to the state Supreme Court. It has 20 days to decide.
But he was clearly stunned by the extent of a ruling that rejected virtually all of the plaintiffs’ arguments. “We really didn’t prevail on anything,” he said.
After meeting with his group’s attorneys, however, Bozza said he was confident there were still some openings to pursue. A main point of contention was the Legislature’s intent in setting some broad guidelines for the review of superintendent contracts.
The court in its ruling yesterday said that salaries fell within the definition of compensation. Bozza maintained that statute said otherwise. “We are very concerned about the legislative intent and whether they allowed for cutoffs that are as arbitrary as they are,” he said.
Legislators largely remained silent on the decision yesterday, despite requests for comment from both the Senate and Assembly leadership. Up to now, the Legislature has avoided the topic, not even holding public hearings or offering any bills that might ease the caps.
The governor’s office was not as subdued. It went so far as to say that it hopes the ruling will provide disincentive for districts seeking to get around the caps through added stipends and other measures.
“We’re obviously pleased that the court so emphatically upheld these commonsense reforms to hold down superintendent salaries that had grown out of control for local taxpayers,” Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said in an email.
“Just as importantly, today’s ruling sent an important message that attempts to circumvent the cap are not just a slap in the face to taxpayers, but unlawful as well,” he wrote.
The caps have had a far-reaching impact on districts since they were put in place, with a rising number of superintendents stepping down as their contracts have expired in the last several years.
The state’s school boards association said half of all districts have seen their superintendents turn over in the past two years, in large part due to the new caps.
At this week’s school boards and superintendents convention in Atlantic City, the caps were a dominant topic of conversation. Several supers said that since the caps have been put in place, it has created a situation where in some districts, school principals not constrained by the caps will soon make more than their bosses.
“I was at a meeting and there was a new superintendent who said he was one of the lower-paid administrators in his district,” said Christopher Manno, superintendent of Burlington Township schools. “I wonder if that is a smart way to do business.”
Daniel Fishbein, superintendent of Ridgewood schools, said it has been such a worry in north Jersey, where salaries are highest, that districts have had a hard time attracting and retaining new leaders.
“I see it in Bergen County, where we do the superintendent roundtable each month, and I look at the list of superintendents, the interim superintendents are twice as many as the new ones,” he said.
In South Jersey, the salaries are lower and less affected by the caps, but the impact remains.
“I just think it’s a law of unintended consequences,” said Albert Brown, a shared superintendent between Stratford and Laurel Springs schools. “There is not even an inflation index. Instead, these numbers are chiseled in stone.”