Up for Vote, Senate Bill Would Strike Down Superintendent Salary Caps

John Mooney | May 18, 2015 | Education
Measure raises important question: How many Senate Republicans will line up to go against one of Christie’s early educational reforms?

State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen)
It hasn’t gotten as much attention in the din over PARCC testing, but a bill that would end New Jersey’s controversial caps on superintendent pay up for a key vote today.

The state Senate posted the bill before the full session today, a test of not just its support in the upper house but also how far Republicans will go to back — or buck — Gov. Chris Christie on one of his earliest education initiatives.

Sponsored by state Sens. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) and Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the bill would prohibit the state from setting salary limits on school superintendents, effectively ending the caps imposed in 2011 that put a ceiling on superintendent pay, depending on the size of the district.

The bill appears to have strong Democratic support in the Senate, where it passed both the Senate’s education and budget committee. But Republicans have so far either voted against it or abstained, raising doubts that the Democrats will have enough votes to override a possible veto from Christie.

The vote comes as there have been some discussions behind the scenes as to if and how the caps would expire in 2016, opening the possibility of a phase-out or even an extension.

An exchange on the topic arose at the Senate budget committee’s review last month of the administration’s education budget, when state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) said the ceiling actually has led to some administrators in districts making far more than superintendents.

“Is the department looking at some kind of comprehensive policy that will deal with administrative costs?” Beck asked Education Commissioner David Hespe.

She said there was a time when superintendent pay rose too much, too fast, and grew “untenable.”

“But the cap is not thoughtful, especially when we have people working for these folks who are exceeding their salaries,” Beck said.

[related]Hespe said the department was in the midst of collecting data as to the impact of the caps that it would use to determine what’s next. Much of the debate — and legal challenge — has been about superintendents who have been driven from the job by the caps, but Hespe maintained that there have been other effects as well.

“What did we actually see?” Hespe answered. “Some of the things will surprise you. You will see there has been more diversity in the candidates. There have been more female candidates. There have been more minority candidates.”

Both Ruiz and Sarlo dismissed those claims, and said the administration should move on supporting their bill.

“We have literally had a brain drain in Bergen County,” said Sarlo. “We have superintendents quite literally taking up camp right outside of our borders, Rockland County, Westchester County.”

“We have more interim superintendents in Bergen County than we have ever had,” Sarlo said.

Then Sarlo called out the Republicans for failing so far to support eliminating the cap; Beck answered back that the bill was “too simplistic.”

“We had a problem where we are spending so much for superintendents in even tiny little districts,” Beck said.

“To me, I would prefer to see something comprehensive that wasn’t just superintendents, but also assistant superintendents and principals, and really have some standards in place.”