Murphy scraps Christie’s salary cap for N.J. superintendents

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is pictured in this Jan. 15, 2019 file photo (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is pictured in this Jan. 15, 2019 file photo (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

This article originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

Nine years ago, almost to the day, then-Gov. Chris Christie turned New Jersey school administrative pay on its head when he announced a $175,000 cap on superintendent pay — a figure equal to his own salary.

On Friday, Gov. Phil Murphy — without fanfare — signed into law an end to the cap, an almost inevitable conclusion for a measure that had run its course but also left a lasting mark.

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In both policy and politics, Christie’s unilateral move resonated in a state where the high end of superintendent pay was easily topping $200,000 in 2010. A recent state report highlighted the Keansburg superintendent getting a package of more than $500,000.

Pushback and court challenges were immediate, but that only added to the political theater of the then new governor’s bold cost-cutting agenda.

“This is a new day for superintendent pay in New Jersey,” Christie said, when announcing the salary cap at a Spotswood elementary school on a July morning in 2010. “Everyone knows this is right to do, but people are afraid to take the first step.”

“New Jersey is no longer afraid,” he said.

‘Purely a political move’ by Christie

“It was purely a political move by a governor who picked the right time to do it,” said Michael Hayes, a Rutgers University assistant professor who studied the impact of the cap back in 2014. “A lot of people were upset about their property taxes, and a move like this had a lot of support.”

Although the average compensation didn’t drop overall, superintendents’ salaries have stabilized over the last decade, with the average of about $156,000 in 2010 staying virtually unchanged by 2018, according to an NJ Spotlight analysis. The median also barely rose during the same period, from $161,000 to $165,000, not counting inflation.

Salaries undoubtedly came down for those at the higher end of the superintendents’ pay scale. And the days of superintendents making $250,000-plus are over for now, except for a few in the largest school districts; the state’s dozen largest districts were always exempt from the limit, as were charter schools and vocational and special education schools.

But with the cap there also came a certain loss of leadership and experience in the top ranks, advocates said, as many long-time superintendents stepped aside — or out of state — rather than face the new constraints. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of that, including a state Superintendent of the Year who left for upstate New York.

Indeed, NJ Spotlight’s analysis found the average experience of superintendents dropped significantly from 30 years in 2010-2011 to 22 years in 2018-2019. Under that pressure, the cap was raised to $191,584 in 2017, with incentives to earn more if a superintendent stayed.

‘Some very egregious contracts’

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the influential chair of the Senate education committee, sponsored the bill signed on Friday that now returns control of superintendent contracts to local districts, with some oversight by the state’s county superintendents.

Upon passage of that bill last month, Ruiz acknowledged Christie’s cap came from a very different time and had at least the Legislature’s tepid support.

“At the time, there were some very egregious contracts,” Ruiz said. “In an attempt to abate those bad-actor circumstances, we went in this direction. But it was without thinking about the unintended circumstances.”

She cited especially as an unintended consequence the loss of many qualified leaders and the apparent rise of interim superintendents who could skirt the cap. Elsewhere, there were cases of assistant superintendents and other administrators exceeding their own boss’s pay.

Ruiz pledged the new rules would not signal a return to lax oversight, with the state ultimately responsible to keep contracts in check. Previously enacted 2-percent annual caps on overall administrative pay should help, she said.

New controls in place

“I think there has been more light shed on it,” she said, “if there are circumstances of egregious behavior, part of the culpability will fall on [the state].”

“Maybe the upside is there was this time of a pause to put a framework in place,” Ruiz said.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney also said time had run out on the cap’s effectiveness, “when you now have principals and assistant superintendents making more than the superintendents. And look at all the talent we lost to New York and Pennsylvania.”

Even Republicans once allied with Christie were no longer putting up much of a fight.

“At the time of the first votes, there were a couple of out-of-control salaries,” said state Sen. Thomas Kean (R-Union). “It made sense. Now with the 2 percent cap and couple of other controls, now there is appropriate time to pull it back,” he said, adding, “We reset the system in a positive way.”

Hayes, the Rutgers assistant professor tracking the impact of the rules, said he will closely follow what happens next once the controls are removed.

Under the cap, for example, he found that the gender pay gap narrowed somewhat in the last decade, although men still vastly outnumber women at the position.

Another lesson Hayes said he learned was how the limits were dodged and maneuvered around in that time as well. He wonders if that will continue.

“Whatever you do to limit spending, government will always find a way around it,” he said.

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