Superintendent Salary Cap Back in Limelight — As Clock Counts Down

John Mooney | February 10, 2015 | Education
As limits on top school administrators' near expiration in 2016, stalled Senate bill draws new attention as it's voted out of committee

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex)
Backed by the Democratic leadership, a bill that would effectively end Gov. Chris Christie’s controversial caps on school superintendent salaries has suddenly come to life in the Senate — but whether it will ever become law remains very much in question.

Stalled since last summer, the bill sponsored by state Sens. Teresa Ruiz (D-Bergen) and Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairs of the Senate’s education and budget committees, respectively, was approved by the budget committee yesterday by an 8-2 vote.

Among the measure’s supporters was Senate President Steve Sweeney, and the next step is all-but-certain passage in the Senate. A companion bill is pending in the Assembly.

The dissent came from the Republican side of the aisle, indicating a veto-proof vote will be difficult to attain. And with the salary caps up for renewal or possible modification in November 2016, when they expire, there was no certainty that much would happen before then. Christie has given no indication that he would go along with a repeal.

The bill would specifically prohibit the state from setting maximums on superintendent pay.

State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) led the dissent in the committee hearing yesterday, saying the abuses in pay that prompted the caps in the first place five years ago were still possible and moving back to what she called the “free agent” system of the past would be a mistake.

“I have a some real concerns about quickly reversing the clock here,” Beck said.

“I think the cap is imperfect and problematic, especially because those who work for the superintendent can now earn more than the superintendent,” she said. “But I think simply rolling it back and saying let’s let school districts do what they will is also not a great approach.”

The supporters of the bill said that safeguards could be put in place to prevent potential abuses in the future — and some already were, including rules that require the state department of education to sign off on all new contracts.

“That was a very long time ago,” said Ruiz of the abuses. “I think the state a lot of time can take a real quick approach to dealing with a problem in the short term, and we don’t look at the long-term impact and the unintended consequences.”

She said she would support specific prohibitions on compensation for housing and other ancillary costs, but setting specific salary limits was beyond the state’s role.

“If we are going to start legislating caps for professionals in this state, lets start with the presidents of universities and public hospitals and everyone on down,” Ruiz said.

This is sort of back and forth that is sure to come on an issue that the Legislature largely ignored for the past few years but now is delving into again.

The caps have been the bane of many districts, or at least their superintendents, since they were unilaterally put in place in late 2010. Setting pay limits based on enrollment, topping out at $175,000, the caps have been blamed by districts for driving away experienced school leaders.

In a handful of cases, superintendents whose contracts have come up for renewal have left New Jersey to take similar jobs across the border in New York and Pennsylvania, which face no such limits.

Yesterday, the state’s leading school groups testified in favor of the bill, saying it was time to end the limits.

“What we have seen is quite a bit of turnover of really fine education leaders who are still at the prime of their service but moving on because of the [caps],” said Lynne Strickland, director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools.

“This has been in place for five years, and if people were looking for a reset in the salary levels, that has occurred,” she testified. “It is time to acknowledge that we need to move ahead in a more positive stable direction for education leadership.”

Others said the attention given to superintendent pay statewide has significantly increased in the years since the regulations were put in place, and the time of hidden compensation was past.

“Really, you can’t have a runaway train anymore in giving out these contracts,” said Melanie Schulz, lobbyist for the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, which represents superintendents.

Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services released a fiscal analysis of the bill that said superintendents still over the pay limits under previous contracts would amount to annual savings of nearly $2 million if they fell back to cap levels.