Christie Isn’t Ready to Talk About Expiring Caps on Superintendent Salaries

John Mooney | June 6, 2016 | Education
Caps will sunset in November of this year, but governor doesn’t expect to start thinking about issue before October

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The move in mid-2010 was one his boldest to date, when Gov. Chris Christie pretty much unilaterally imposed new salary limits on New Jersey’s school superintendents, capping them at his own salary of $175,000.

Before that, the superintendent slot had long been among the more lucrative in New Jersey’s public sector, with salaries well above $200,000 hardly unusual, even for a relatively small district.

But the move by administrative regulation suddenly put the clamp on such pay and stirred New Jersey’s school leadership like few others. Legal challenges were filed (and lost), dozens of veteran superintendents retired earlier than planned, and other high-profile ones jumped to neighboring states with no such caps.

Six years later, those caps are due to expire this coming November, and all bets are off as to what the governor might do next — if anything at all.

The administration has given few clues about its plans, and questions are mounting as schools prepare to negotiate new contracts with their supers.

Influential legislators from both parties are lining up with those hoping the caps will be allowed to expire outright, again giving local districts the primary say on what they want to pay its school leaders.

But that seems unlikely. According to some observers, Christie doesn’t seem one to let them end without any new limits in place at all. Maybe some adjustments at least for inflation, some have wondered, or more flexibility for superintendents with the most experience.

Christie isn’t saying. When asked by NJ Spotlight last week at a press conference in Trenton, the governor used the opportunity to take another poke at the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, which he said had been seeking the caps, something its leadership denies.

“Why don’t you ask the teachers union, they’re the ones who asked me to put the caps on?” he said.

[related]When pressed for his own intentions, Christie said he had not yet begun considering the prospect that lay more than six months away.

“I don’t have an intention,” he said. “It doesn’t sunset until November, and it’s June. I have a lot of decisions to make between now and November, and that one is not at the top of my list at the moment. Come October, I’ll start thinking about it.”

The topic has come up a lot at recent public forums, with administration officials begging off answering the question. Legislators have been less diplomatic, but given the caps came through regulation in the first place, their statutory options may be limited.

Senate President Steve Sweeney last week said he would press for the limits to end outright, and would take legislative action if they don’t. “Let them expire,” he said in an interview.

Sweeney pointed to what he called the unintended consequences of the limits, where pay scales were turned upside down, principals and assistant superintendents now making more than their bosses, and retiring superintendents coming back in interim roles and collecting both pensions and new pay.

“We’re hoping he’ll evaluate what was happened,” Sweeney said of Christie. “I’ll be fair, maybe his intentions were true, but you have to realize it didn’t work, and when we’re looking for people to run $100 million to $150 million budgets, you want the best people in there.”

Sweeney was asked if the Democratic leadership might revive a proposed measure prohibiting the caps, one that didn’t get to a final vote last year without the support necessary to override an almost certain veto.

Sweeney last week said the support may be there this time.

“I do believe this is one of those who should advance with the commitment of an override,” he said. “It’s not to say the governor was wrong. It just didn’t work.”

Whatever happens politically, dozens of superintendents and their school boards are eagerly waiting a resolution. In a given year, a third of all districts are in the midst of either forging new contracts or renewing old ones with their superintendents, but without knowing the rules, negotiations aren’t easy.

For many of them, the short-term solution is including a clause that would reopen salary negotiations when and if the regulations change, according to the head of the state’s superintendents association.

“It’s about the best they can do,” said Richard Bozza executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. “It’s leaving a lot of people anxious … They are somewhat handcuffed by the regulations as they stand now.”