State Lawmakers Clash Over Controversial Cap on Pay of Superintendents

John Mooney | June 10, 2014 | Education
Democrats cite exodus of talent from school districts while Republicans link high salaries to high taxes

State Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren)
The controversial caps on school superintendents’ salaries may have few friends in public school circles, but it doesn’t sound like the Christie administration is budging much– at least for now.

The state Senate’s education committee yesterday heard an hour of testimony in favor of a bill that would effectively end the caps imposed in late 2010 by Gov. Chris Christie and then-education commissioner Bret Schundler.

The caps limited annual pay to $175,000 – the same as the governor’s own salary – for a vast majority of school chiefs, depending on enrollment.

The bill that would lift the caps has strong support from Democratic leaders, with Senate President Stephen Sweeney calling the pay limits a “big mistake” and the influential chair of the education committee saying it is time to fix the regulations.

“It is time to roll up our sleeves to deal with the unintended circumstances of the cap,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the committee’s chairwoman and a prime sponsor of the new bill.

But there appeared little sympathy or support from the administration or the Republican members of the education committee.

Acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe said yesterday that his department continues to review the impact of the rules, but he said there were no plans to ease the limits either through statute or regulations, at least for the time being. The regulations, imposed by administration directive, expire in 2016.

“We are constantly reviewing this, but we have no immediate plans to change our position,” Hespe said yesterday in an interview.

And the GOP members of the Senate committee didn’t provide much more of an opening, with some of them openly contesting the complaints and touching off a rare open argument within the committee.

State Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren) quizzed two superintendents who testified for the bill about their own pay, as well as any health benefits and bonuses, and what their pension benefits would be.

One superintendent, Michael Rossi of Madison, said he was paid $157,500 a year.

“Sen. Doherty, I’m going to ask you to get to your question, please,” Ruiz interrupted Doherty.

“With all due respect,” Doherty responded, as he pursued details of Rossi’s cell phone and transportation expenses. “I am asking him some questions to what is exactly this gentleman’s compensation.”

“This is about salary, not about full compensation,” Ruiz shot back. “This is not about an interrogation of one individual.”

Doherty shot back at Ruiz: “I am not the one who posted this bill and held this hearing.”

The exchange spoke to the continued divide between Christie’s position and the rising chorus against the caps, first led by the superintendents themselves but now joined by school boards and principals who have struggled to deal with the turnover of superintendents that has ensued with implementation of the caps.

The chief worry is that many veteran school chiefs have retired early due to the caps, or left for better paying jobs in New York and Pennsylvania. Board members and others have maintained that separate caps on tax levies and administrative spending have helped keep contracts under control with the strict caps.

“It is important for everyone to know and appreciate that I have been a public educator for 35 years,” said Michael Polizzi, superintendent of New Milford schools, “beginning as a basic skills educator and working toward two master’s degrees with the goal of moving up the career ladder.

“I chose to stay at significant cost to my family, which places me at an increasingly significant minority,” Polizzi said. “The committee and the Legislature need to know the full implications of an ill-advised and detrimental policy placed on superintendents, and superintendents alone.”

The committee vote was 3-2, with Democrats supporting the bill and Republicans opposed.

“We have real problems in New Jersey,” the GOP’s Doherty said. “The one person not represented here are the taxpayers of New Jersey, and those who can’t afford to stay and are being driven out.”