Superintendent salary caps can keep costs down but so would mergers

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

Today at its annual Delegate Assembly, New Jersey School Boards Association will most likely adopt a resolution that attacks Gov. Christie’s mandated state superintendent salary caps as intrusive and untenable.

According to the draft resolution, proposed by the Ridgewood Board of Education (Bergen), local boards of education should have “the flexibility to adjust the CSA’s [Chief School Administrator or Superintendent’s] compensation commensurate with his or her experience knowing the current employment market conditions and other factors that may influence the ability to recruit, hire, and retain a competent and highly qualified CSA.”

Local control, right? Very Jersey. School board members resent state intrusion into the local business of setting superintendent salaries, especially in North Jersey, a stone’s throw away from New York State’s greener, uncapped pastures. And NJSBA data shows that superintendent turnover has spiked sharply since the salary cap was enacted: in 2011-2012, 31.4% of N.J. school districts lost their superintendents (a boon for the burgeoning interim superintendent industry).

Some board members see benefits in a superintendent salary cap, a fact duly noted in the Ridgewood Resolution. All eyes are trained on school budgets, especially with the legislatively-mandated 2% limit on school tax increases. But the impact of the superintendent salary cap goes way beyond the payout to chief school administrators. There’s a ripple effect, which will explicitly or implicitly inform the deliberations at the NJSBA Delegate Assembly.

In Ridgewood, Superintendent Daniel Fishbein will earn $232,872 this year. But when his contract expires on June 30, his salary will be ignobly bumped down to $167,500.

That’s because, according to new Accountability Regulations, salary caps are based on student enrollment:

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0 -250                 $125,000


251– 750             $135,000


751 – 1,500          $145,000


1,501 – 3,000       $155,000


3,001 – 6,500       $165,000


6,501 – 10,000     $175,000

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There are exceptions for districts over 10,000 kids and a bonus of $2,500 for all districts with high schools.

One consequence of capping superintendent salaries is that the salaries of the next level of administrators, supervisors and principals, are creeping closer and closer to their leaders.

Let’s go back to Ridgewood. It has a 5,000-student enrollment and so the superintendent can’t get paid more than $167,500. According to last June’s Board Minutes, which lists every employee’s salary, the assistant superintendent makes $161,190, and a high school principal makes $168,000, more than the superintendent can legally earn. Five other Ridgewood principals make between $147K and $167K..So how will Ridgewood – and all other districts throughout the State — maintain the traditional cultural hierarchy if underlings make more than the leaders?

By capping the salaries of everyone below them. And that’s not something that will come through State edict, but through individual districts, a far more difficult endeavor because supervisors and principals are unionized.Superintendents are not lawyers or politicians, who may tolerate lower salaries in exchange for future riches like lucrative book deals or speaking engagements. They are educators at the pinnacle of their earning power, and some of the hardest-working people you’ll ever meet.

What do you do when you can’t pay your CEO more than your managers? Conspiracy theorists would propose that this was Gov. Christie’s secret plan all along: force local districts to set their own salary caps for principals, administrators, and other highly-compensated office staff. Some districts are already preparing for this inevitability.

None of this is bad. New Jersey could use could use a hard analysis of the fiscal sustainability of a state school system with 591 districts. Can anyone say “merger?”

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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.

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