James Crisfield, the superintendent of Millburn’s public schools, was among the last class of New Jersey school leaders to seal his contract before Gov. Chris Christie imposed strict salary caps on superintendent pay.
In the four years since, the caps have been as controversial as anything on Christie’s education agenda, with some saying it gave the system a needed jolt, while others claim it has led to an exodus of talented leaders.
And now, Crisfield has bolstered the arguments of the latter camp, announcing this week that he taken the superintendent post in the Wissahickon School District in Montgomery County, Pa., near Philadelphia — in large part due to the salary constraints he faced in New Jersey once his contract expired.
As leader of one of the New Jersey’s highest-performing districts, Crisfield’s departure is among the highest-profile exits to date. Following are excerpts from an interview with NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney.
Q: So, tell me what happened in your decision?
I always thought I’d finish out my career in Millburn. It’s a great district and I can’t think of one any better. But then things happened. I had my pay frozen for the last four years, which I found reasonable given the economic times. But then once my contract expires this coming June, I would have been subject to a 24 percent pay cut, and that just didn’t seem reasonable, not something I thought was fair and certainly not something the local board thought of. But the rules are the rules.
Q: What is that salary?
My current salary is $219,500. It’s a little crass to bring the numbers up, but when you talk about the percentage cut, I’m 50 and I’m not close enough to the end that I can look the other way. Wissahickon will be $215,000, plus a 5 percent annuity.
Q: Was the cap the primary reason?
It wasn’t primary. But would I have been looking? Probably not. But I am grateful for finding Wissahickon, absolutely, I am very grateful to have found it.
Q: What would have the cap lowered your salary to?
Millburn under the cap would have paid $165,000, and you also get $2,500 bonus for having a high school. That’s all a high school is worth — $2,500. I can tell you, there is more than $2,500 worth of issues in a high school.
There are also merit pay opportunities, and they are heavily bureaucratic. My thought on that is if the head of the organization is receiving merit pay and the rest isn’t, that doesn’t sit right.
Q: You are not the first in Essex County to leave the state, at least in part due to the caps.
I know of a number of vacancies now. I know Livingston has an interim superintendent, South Orange-Maplewood is also looking. I find it impossible to believe someone would not have figured out this effect when they put it in. And if a reasonable person could predict this, why then would they do it?
Q: What’s your guess?
I don’t know. I know recent efforts by politicians to have it reexamined have been thwarted, and I won’t get into the politics, but you see people talk about it and nothing is done about it.
Q: The governor might say it was to reset the clock on superintendent pay that some say had gotten out of control, and this was a blunt force to get it back on page.
I think there were those instances where individuals received rather large payouts at the end of their contracts. And the numbers tossed around did seem high. And by the way, that was the impetus for my contract to have zero (in severance). When I walk out, it will be zero. That I think was a good outcome of the spotlight on those issues.
I don’t understand the rationale of the salary piece, though. Take Millburn. It is a $85 million organization, and you have one person responsible. But you would never create a model where the person responsible is compensated at a level lower than the deputies.
Q: How many in Millburn would make more than you if you stayed and took the pay cut?
Maybe five. And also the effect is that the cap is cutting way back on the pool of people who are interested in becoming district leaders. Why would you move from principal or maybe assistant superintendent and incur the added time and responsibility, and with a pay cut? That’s not a natural outcome.
Q: There is some talk that the regulation will sunset next year, and there could be some added flexibility going forward. Did you think about waiting?
I thought there is no way this would stick and that people would realize the knowable outcome of this. I had some conversations with politicians and I know the Garden State Coalition of Schools was working on this, but it came to a point I didn’t see any progress.
Q: Any final thoughts?
I feel like it is a real bittersweet outcome for me. I had been in New Jersey so long, and I really felt Millburn would be the final career stop for me. I have a number of years left in the tank. On the other hand, I am so grateful to have found Wissahickon. It is mixed emotions at this point.