Op-Ed: Superintendent Salary Cap Hasn’t Worked, So Let’s Scrap It

Elisabeth Ginsburg | December 18, 2018 | Opinion
Former Gov. Chris Christie imposed the cap as a cost-saving measure, but a recent study shows it has cost districts money and educational capital

Betsy Ginsburg
Elisabeth Ginsburg
When other institutions in society crumble, the schoolhouse stands.

The “schoolhouse” in this case, is public education, which continues to nurture, instruct and care for most of our children. The schoolhouse continues to stand — even in the face of funding cuts, teacher shortages and, in some places, a lack of respect for education itself.

It takes many people to keep the schoolhouse standing, including dedicated staff, supportive parents and communities, and committed local boards of education. But when any or all of those groups look for answers at the district level, they turn to one person — the school superintendent.

Therefore, we need to eliminate the superintendent salary cap.

The salary cap was imposed in 2011 by Governor Christie, as a purported cost-saving measure. It was, at best, a misplaced response to the economic downturn that began in 2008. At worst, it was an example of sound-bite politics that made scapegoats of one, relatively small education group. A recent study by Michael Hayes, Assistant Professor at Rutgers Camden demonstrates what many education observers have known all along. The salary cap cost districts not only money, but something even more important — educational capital.

They’re not distant figureheads

Modern school superintendents bear little resemblance to the distant figureheads that some of us remember (or misremember) from our school days. The superintendent has the legal and educational and physical responsibility for hundreds, or even thousands, of students every day. He or she is also the chief operating officer of a multi-million-dollar business in an industry that is one of the most intensely scrutinized and highly regulated in this country.

No matter what size district, the superintendent must be a jack of all trades who is on call 24/7. On any given day, a superintendent might be involved in efforts as diverse as conducting mandated teacher observations, meeting with local law enforcement, reviewing curriculum changes with district personnel, hearing the concerns of distraught parents, checking on reports of mold in a locker room, and adjudicating special education disputes. When districts celebrate academic success or athletic victories, the superintendent is there. When tragedy strikes the school community the district superintendent is also there, leading the district in mourning, often while dealing with his or her own grief.

As a community leader and prominent public official, the superintendent is an automatic lightning rod for criticism. And whether deserved or undeserved, that criticism is always magnified through the fisheye lens of social media.

Districts of all sizes have suffered

Good leadership in education, like in any other business, stimulates growth, innovation, and the free flow of ideas. The salary cap discouraged all of those things. Districts of all sizes have suffered through a high rate of superintendent turnover as experienced superintendents left New Jersey for Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut. Repeated superintendent searches have eaten up time, money and energy that might have been better spent improving outcomes. Long-term objectives have been put on hold, as many districts spent one, two or even three years with interim leaders.

Talent and stability in the top job contributes to district success. At a time when our students face a host of challenges, we need that stability. To achieve it, we must return decision-making power about superintendent compensation to local boards of education, knowing that those boards will still have to make those decisions in the context of the 2 percent tax levy cap.

Recently a group of Mercer County school superintendents came together in a comprehensive effort to prevent student suicides. Similar initiatives are happening in school districts all over New Jersey. It is hard to put a price on that level of care and compassion.

When other institutions in society crumble, the schoolhouse stands. The superintendent leads the group of dedicated people who keep the structure strong. I hope that our legislators will put education and educators first by eliminating the superintendent salary cap.