New Jersey is having second thoughts on superintendent salary caps

Chris Christie

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie leaves the Capitol in Washington in this Nov. 17, 2014 file photo (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

In 2011, Governor Christie’s administration issued salary caps for all of New Jersey’s school superintendents. Using his own salary as the upper limit, the directive from his Department of Education said no superintendent can be paid more than  $175,000 (lower caps for smaller districts, exclusions for really big ones; merit bonuses may apply).

This decision fundamentally changed a longstanding practice of having local school boards negotiate salaries with their future CEO’s. 

No other state in the country has a superintendent salary cap. Minnesota had one briefly, but the State Legislature there abolished it.

Rethinking the salary cap

But there’s an effort underway in Trenton to overturn that decision and return the power to set top salaries back to the school districts. 

Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) is proposing A2930, a bill that would abolish the Governor’s authority to cap district superintendent salaries.

Here’s the bill’s formal synopsis:  “Prohibits the DOE from regulating the maximum salary amount a school district may pay its superintendent of schools.” Short and sweet. The State overstepped its authority, so send it back to localities and recalibrate that balance of power.

Back in 2011 when the DOE seized control, the move was classic Christie, an iteration of his Legislative bargain that set a 2 percent property tax levy cap on towns. Local property taxes account for most school districts’ largest source of revenue. 

The media was filled with images of our fleece-coated everyman standing up for the little guy. That superintendent salary cap narrative bestowed the the unwanted “poster child for greed,” on Parsippany-Troy Hills Superintendent Leroy Seitz, who made $225,064 a year for running a 6,000 student district. (Seitz resigned last year after a legal battle.)  

The Office of the Governor issued a statement claiming that “right now, superintendents in districts with over 1,000 students earn an average of $192,764, while superintendents in districts with fewer than 1,000 students earn an average of $152,764” and “these salaries are out of proportion with the private sector, current economic realities and district demands.”

Taxpayers may have cheered but lobbying groups for superintendents and school boards were grim. The New Jersey Association of School Administrators, which represents superintendents, sued the State (they lost), arguing that the salary cap is unconstitutional because it elevates DOE directives over the will of the Legislature and of local school boards.

The New Jersey School Boards Association was more circumspect, applauding the use of merit bonuses but arguing that the 2 percent property tax levy cap was its own restriction and that the salary cap was “overly rigid.”

While both groups worried that the cap would create an “exodus” of superintendents to the greener pastures of uncapped New York, their primary objection was one of governance.

How did the salary cap play out? Some overly-compensated superintendents fled, while others stomached a pay cut. Over the last few years the increasing use of merit bonuses tied to student outcomes has softened the grip of the cap, although those bonuses must be approved by County Superintendents (who are state-appointed overseers of all local districts within each of Jersey’s 21 counties). There’s been no data to prove mass diaspora; superintendency in N.J. has been a limited gig, about three years or so, ever since 1991 when the Legislature (here’s a governance issue again) eliminated tenure for superintendents.

Salary caps did not trickle down

More troublesome is a new pattern of other administrators — principals, assistant principals, curriculum supervisors, whose salaries are uncapped, are starting to take home more than their bosses. Some speculate that Christie’s strategy was that the superintendent salary cap would force districts to set other caps. Hasn’t happened, perhaps because the other jobs are unionized.

Let’s look at Princeton Regional Public Schools (Mercer County) for insight. Last year Superintendent Judith Wilson quit because her $220,000 salary would be cut by $52,000 under a new contract in order to comply with the DOE cap of $167K, based on Princeton’s enrollment. (Don’t feel too sorry for her; she exited with a $50K check for unused sick leave and vacation days.) Princeton’s new superintendent, Stephen Cochrane, has a contract for $167,500. However, two principals, who labor under no DOE salary restrictions, make more than Cochrane, about $173,000.

Assemblyman Diegnan’s bill will most likely be popular among school boards, lobbyists, and politicians. (Sen. President Steve Sweeney has already signaled his approval.) It’s yet another shift in governance, this time in the direction of local control, and this recalibration may have more to do with Christie’s shrinking stock value than anything else. 

___________________________________

Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

 

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.