Fine Print: Final superintendent salary cap ruling

John Mooney | July 25, 2013 | Education
Former schools chief in Parsippany-Troy Hills ordered to give back $17,500 he was overpaid

Former Parsippany-Troy Hills Superintendent Leroy Seitz.
What it is: The state’s acting education commissioner last week ruled against former Parsippany-Troy Hills superintendent Leroy Seitz in his epic two-year fight against Gov. Chris Christie’s salary caps for school superintendents. The ruling made by assistant commissioner Evo Popoff, serving as acting commissioner, found that Seitz will have to repay the school district $17,500 in salary that was found in excess of the caps.

What it means: Besides being the highest profile of the cases, the ruling is all but certain to be the last legal step in what had been a multi-faceted set of court challenges against the 2011 salary caps that have shaken up school districts across the state. Two other challenges on broader grounds had been rejected by state appellate court this spring, and then passed over on appeal to the state Supreme Court last month.

The politics: Seitz’s case had been the most volatile of the challenges, drawing the ire of Christie, who called Seitz’s contract “the definition of greed and arrogance” after it was renewed on the eve of the caps in late 2010. The new contract would have paid him on average about $225,000, compared to the cap’s limit at $177,500.

The case: The state’s county superintendent subsequently rejected the contract, and Christie threatened to withhold $3 million in state aid if the board did not rescind it. Under pressure, the local board demanded Seitz return the extra pay, prompting Seitz’s challenge that the contract had been properly extended and the state did not have the authority to reject it. He subsequently resigned in May, but maintained the challenge against the board and the state.

The decision: An administrative law judge in May provided the first ruling against Seitz in saying that the contract had not been approved in writing by the state’s county superintendent and he was not entitled to keep the money. The judge settled on the $17,500 as being in excess of the base salary set in the contract first year in 2006. As expected, Popoff in his decision posted on July 16 upheld the judge’s ruling, saying that administrative judge’s decision supported by the facts and testimony.

Why Popoff? At the time of the decision, state education commissioner Chris Cerf was on vacation, and Popoff was serving as acting commissioner.

Really the end? This case was more on the technicality of how contracts were approved as the cap was falling into place in late 2010 and early 2011, a big point of contention at the time with the state starting to enforce the new regulations before they were actually formally in place. But it was the last hope of superintendents and others who had fought with little success to at least put a legal dent in the new rules.

The eulogy: “Anything else we had out there basically ended when the state Supreme Court refused to hear our appeals last month,” said Richard Bozza, executive director of the state’s superintendent’s association, which led the legal challenges and represented Seitz in his case.

What’s next? The caps continue on, with a host of districts continuing to see veteran superintendents retire or move to jobs out of state due at least in part to the caps that would lead to big cuts in pay. Bozza said at least 75 superintendent posts are already turning over for next year, part of a trend where about half of the districts have seen their top leadership change since the caps were imposed.

Sunset coming, sometime: The regulations are set to expire or “sunset,” although precisely when is unclear, said Bozza. The regulations themselves list a Nov. 25, 2014 expiration, at which time they can be amended, extended or changed outright. But the uncertainty comes in a separate regulatory change that extended all education regulations’ timeframe to a seven-year cycle, meaning these specific regulations would last until 2016.