Democrats Move to Overturn Caps on Salaries of School Superintendents

John Mooney | March 25, 2014 | Education
Critics say administrators are retiring early or taking out-of-state jobs; legislators move to amend Christie policy

Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr.
For the first time, the Christie administration’s caps on school superintendent pay are seeing some resistance from the Legislature.

Whether that leads to changes in the caps remains to be seen.

A bill filed by state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) would all but block the state from setting caps on how much superintendents earn.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) last week called the caps a “big mistake” that needs to be resolved.

“It has created a situation where 25 percent of the superintendents in the state are temporary,” Sweeney said in a speech before the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association on Friday.

“Basically, that is only a caretaker, and education can’t afford caretakers any more,” he said.

The salary limits are as significant as any policy in Gov. Chris Christie’s administration.

In 2010, Christie announced he would impose the caps through state regulations that would limit the vast majority of districts to paying its superintendents no more than $175,000, equal to the governor’s own pay. The limits varied from district to district, based on enrollment.

The caps have been roundly challenged, including unsuccessful attempts to overturn them in court, and have led to an unprecedented turnover of leadership in schools as many superintendents have either retired early or left for higher-paying out-of-state posts.

Nonetheless, the Democrat-led Legislature has up to now stayed out of the debate, opting not to challenge the limits of salaries which had been deemed excessive in some cases. A state investigative report in 2006 found widespread abuses in school administrator compensation, including some superintendents who took homes hundreds of thousands of dollars in severance pay.

But Diegnan said yesterday, in defending his new bill, that it was time to step in to curtail the limits, which he said are going too far in the other direction, hurting schools.

“The facts speak for themselves,” Diegnan said yesterday of the superintendent turnover. “It’s one of the common complaints that I hear from districts.”

Sweeney said in his talk before the principals association that the turnover was hurting districts across the state.

“We are losing superintendents, nobody wants the job, and that is hurting our school districts,” he said. “That has to change, and the governor has to realize that is a mistake.”

How much the Legislature can reverse the caps is unclear, however. Diegnan said his bill, if enacted, would only affect future superintendent contracts, not existing ones.

The caps themselves are scheduled to expire in 2016, but most expect Christie to renew them.

Diegnan’s bill would prohibit the state from setting specific caps on superintendent salaries but would state officials would retain authority to approve or reject the final pacts.