Rutgers researcher finds no evidence N.J. superintendent salary cap saved school districts money

A second grade class in Newark, N.J. (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

A second grade class in Newark, N.J. (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

Initially billed as a cost-cutting measure, the New Jersey superintendent salary cap failed to save money and instead resulted in a higher probability that superintendents across the state would quit, according to new research from Rutgers University.

“There’s no evidence of a reduction in costs for schools,” said Michael Hayes, an assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers-Camden, who scrutinized school district budget data from 2004 to 2014. “All we see is this negative cost in terms of higher rates of superintendent turnover as a result of the New Jersey superintendent salary cap.”

Former Republican Gov. Chris Christie instituted a cap on superintendent pay in 2011 — ranging from $125,000 to $175,000 depending on enrollment — as a belt-tightening measure amid increasingly shrinking state and local budgets. The maximum salary for a New Jersey superintendent increased with new rules in 2017, but the cap system remains in place.

Hayes said that the policy, which only limits the salary of one person in districts with sometimes hundreds of employees and massive budgets, was never a smart way to cut costs. “This is not a surprising result.”

Hayes found that, in the first year after the cap was  implemented, there was a 16 percent increase in the likelihood that superintendents immediately facing a pay cut would leave, suggesting the cap was a driver of higher turnover.

According to the research, superintendents in the state’s poorest school districts were more than twice as likely to quit in the first year after the cap.

Hayes also found that, even though the average superintendent saw a $19,000 pay cut, school districts only reduced their overall budgets by half a percent, a statistically insignificant amount.

There was no evidence, Hayes said, that any savings were shifted to student instruction or classroom spending.

“The idea that the state government can set an arbitrary cap on superintendent pay across all school districts in New Jersey doesn’t make sense,” Hayes said. “I think school districts are in the best place to make the best decision when it comes to salary.”

A bill passed by the state Senate in February that’s awaiting a vote in the Assembly would eliminate the cap and prohibit the state Department of Education from limiting how much school districts could pay their superintendents.

Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), who co-sponsored the legislation and chairs the education committee, said the goal was to put local governments in charge of salary decisions while ensuring that no superintendents were permitted to have exorbitant contracts.

“Obviously we have levels of checks and balances. Our county superintendents should be there looking at contracts to make sure we are not doling out money that districts don’t have or offering sweet deals,” Ruiz said, but “districts should have the power to see what their abilities are to pay the experts that they think make a great fit for their schools.”

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