Lawmakers may lift cap on school superintendent pay


TRENTON, NEW JERSEY —— It’s looking like a better time to be a school superintendent in the Garden State.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), newly appointed chair of the Senate Education Committee, has sponsored a bill, just reported out of committee, to scrap a $191,000 pay cap on superintendents enacted under former-Gov. Chris Christie.

The bill, S-692, seeks to return contract control to the districts. Ruiz argues that the cap’s aim of controlling costs thwarts local control and has been driving top talent out of state.

The measure is supported by Democratic lawmakers and such advocacy groups as the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, New Jersey Association of School Administrators, and the Garden State Coalition of Schools.

The New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA), a federation of all of the state’s local school districts, said in a statement Jan. 25 that repealing the cap isn’t a call for spending more money on schools, but rather says districts should have the flexibility to direct their limited resources in a manner that best serves the needs of their students and the greater educational community.

It added that the cap leads to disruptive turnover, creates a barrier to forming shared superintendent agreements, and deters educational leaders from desiring to ascend to superintendent.

“For many educators, becoming a superintendent signifies the pinnacle of a lifelong ascent up the educational career ladder. Yet, the salary cap, which applies to no other school district position, creates a significant disincentive for any educator to strive toward that goal,” NJSBA said.

According to a 2015 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, the state ranks 47th in the percentage of school expenditures going towards administrative costs.

While the national average stands at 10.7 percent, New Jersey directs 9 percent of its expenditures toward central office and school building administration.

State Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen, Passaic) isn’t moved by proponents’ arguments.

He told the Northern Valley Press Feb. 2 that S-692 “is very nice for superintendents and I’m sure that they’re very much in favor of it, but we have some of the highest property taxes in the world in New Jersey, and that doesn’t make it easier on the property tax payer.”

He added, “I will resist anything that increases the burden on my property tax payers.”

Cardinale noted that there are guidelines for the salaries of the governor, legislature, police, and teachers.

“Why should the superintendent not have guidelines? Because somebody wants to get a fancy name or a celebrity superintendent? It doesn’t wash,” he said.

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy did not take a position on the salary cap during his campaign. His office did not respond to Northern Valley Press inquiries by press time.

On taking office in 2010, his Republican predecessor, Christie, said state superintendents, then making an average $163,000, were well overpaid.

Under Christie’s cap, which he enacted unilaterally, superintendents first could earn $125,000 to $175,000 based on district size.

Pay incentives based on merit were passed as well, requiring annual local board of education approval.

The cap was hiked in 2017 to $191,584, not including bonuses.

(Drilling down, that’s a base pay of $147,794 for districts with 749 students or fewer, $169,689 for districts with 750 to 2,999 students, and $191,584 for districts with 3,000 or more students.)

The 2016-2017 median superintendent salary in New Jersey was $147,500, according to the Department of Education.

The cap doesn’t apply to the heads of certain non-traditional public schools, such as charter schools, vocational districts, and schools focused on special education students.

More than 20 superintendents exceeded $200,000 in base pay in the 2016-2017 school year, state figures show.

Christie said at the time that the cap would save the state approximately $10 million.

It is set to expire in 2024.

Ruiz has pointed out that with the cap in effect, many top-performing superintendents fled the Garden State for greener pastures and that some districts have been making do with interim contract superintendents.

Ruiz cited a 2013 New Jersey School Boards Association report on the cap’s impact on recruitment, hiring, and retention that found nearly 40 percent of the state’s districts experienced high superintendent turnover.

Moreover, the report said, 97 school districts’ superintendents left over the cap.

Asked to speak to those findings, Cardinale said “the market is not relevant here […] We can find equally talented people to take their place.”

“For lower pay?” we asked.

“No, for guideline pay. Not lower pay—guideline pay. If they want to go to another state that pays them more, God bless them. I think the other states ought to get in line with New Jersey with guidelines because they have property taxes too.”

New Jersey also has a 2 percent property tax levy cap that Cardinale said is in jeopardy against pressure to spend more.

The evidence, Cardinale said: State lawmakers recently allowed the expiration of Christie’s 2 percent cap on the annual raises that an arbitrator can award police officers and professional firefighters.

Asked to comment on local boards of education, Cardinale said that “They know how I feel. I’ve been very vocal about this in the past.”

He added: “We need to have no appetite on the part of a lot of board members who are almost eager to spend more money, and they have pressure from parents to spend more money.”