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8-28-12 Superintendent salaries bring worriesome change to the leadership landscape

 

Salary caps chasing North Jersey superintendents out of state

 

MONDAY, AUGUST 27, 2012    LAST UPDATED: MONDAY AUGUST 27, 2012, 8:17 PM

BY  LESLIE BRODY AND DAVE SHEINGOLD

STAFF WRITERS

THE RECORD

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In the two years since Governor Christie dictated caps on salaries for school superintendents, almost half of the 97 North Jersey districts cut the job’s pay — in one case by $76,000, a Record analysis shows.

 

Only a few superintendents swallowed pay cuts themselves. Most often, experienced superintendents quit when their contracts expired and they were replaced by younger, cheaper recruits, or by “interim” leaders paid per diem. There has been substantial turnover at the top, with at least 46 districts in Bergen and Passaic counties announcing departures since the steamy July day the governor declared that with rare exceptions, superintendents should not make more than his $175,000 salary.

 

With all the leadership changes, taxpayers in these two counties spent roughly $900,000 less on superintendents’ pay last year than two years earlier. Some critics of the salary limits say that’s a minute sliver of the billions of public dollars spent annually on schools in North Jersey, and not worth the pain that ensued. The New Jersey School Boards Association has long criticized the cap, saying it was arbitrary and impinged on boards’ autonomy.

 

Some taxpayers, however, applauded these curbs on six-figure salaries as they strained to deal with high property taxes and recession. Christie insisted it was imperative to stop an upward spiral of superintendents’ pay as they bounced around the state like “free agents” in baseball, looking for lucrative deals.

 

But the cap brought even more turnover, which upset communities that were willing to dig deep to keep talent. Several respected leaders cited the cap in their reasons for leaving. Among them was New Jersey’s 2012 “Superintendent of the Year,” Roy Montesano, who left Ramsey to run schools in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. He’ll earn a $235,000 salary while drawing New Jersey pension checks.

 

“Chris Christie forced us to look at other opportunities,” says Montesano. Some who left were on the verge of retiring anyway, while others said the caps hastened their exit.

 

The cap takes effect when each sitting superintendent’s contract runs out, so its impact is likely to grow as veterans’ contracts expire in the next year or two. Chiefs in Ridgewood, Bergenfield and Tenafly, for example, earn far more than the cap allows and face big decisions on whether to stay. The caps, which took effect in February 2011, increase with a district’s size.

 

A Record analysis of newly released payroll data for the past school year shows a range of consequences.

 

- The median salary for superintendents in Bergen was $177,139 last year, down $7,145 from two years before. In Passaic, it was $175,000, down $15,834.

 

- In 16 districts in North Jersey, the superintendent was not the highest-paid employee, and in several cases made $50,000 less than people under their supervision. (About half of those districts had part-time or acting superintendents.) Some critics of the cap say that principals and other administrators will no longer covet the top job because they can make more where they are, and have tenure.

 

- Some people recruiting superintendents say the pool of candidates is not as deep as it used to be. A few superintendents say privately that some new picks are not ready for the responsibility, but they are reluctant to cite names.

 

- Now 13 districts in Bergen and Passaic are led by interim superintendents. They typically come out of retirement to fill in for a maximum of two years, and they draw a pension and a paycheck at the same time. Board members often say interims can be less expensive than permanent chiefs and boast a wealth of experience, but critics express concern that in some cases, interims do little more than mark time.

 

The musical chairs have had some noteworthy results. The state Department of Education is losing an assistant commissioner, Penny MacCormack, who is taking the seat of the Montclair superintendent, who is leaving for a job in New York.

 

In a few places, a superintendent retired and then came back as an interim in the same desk. That includes Mark Hayes, who made $72,000 as a three-day-a-week interim in Palisades Park last year, down from $184,251 in 2009-10. He spent a year teaching college in between.

 

Doing the top job part-time “was a struggle,” Hayes said. “Five days lends itself to better continuity, better supervision.”

 

For all of the criticism of the cap from educators, many taxpayers welcomed it. A Quinnipiac University poll of New Jersey voters, conducted around the time the caps took effect, found it was popular; 68 percent of voters said the pay cap was a good way to help balance the budget, while 25 percent said it was meddling in local government.

 

The Christie administration says the cap works. “We believe the caps have accomplished the goal of helping to rein in excessive spending in New Jersey, and even with these in place, we believe there are many qualified candidates who will want to lead school districts in New Jersey,” said Department of Education spokeswoman Barbara Morgan, by email.

 

Eighteen North Jersey districts cut pay for the superintendent’s post by more than 20 percent in the past two years, state data shows. Among full-time appointments, that includes Pascack Valley Regional High School district (to $157,500 last year, from $221,000), Woodcliff Lake (to $145,000, from $193,000) and Edgewater (to $145,000, from $188,000). In Passaic, that includes Pompton Lakes ($157,500 from $197,000).

 

Litigation over the salary caps drags on. The New Jersey School Administrators Association is part of five legal challenges, including one by Passaic Superintendent Robert Holster. Association Executive Director Richard Bozza insists that only local school boards or the Legislature have the authority to set salary caps.

 

Besides, Bozza says, New Jersey’s total administrative costs — an average of 9.5 percent of school budgets — rank among the lowest nationwide according to federal data. He also says unfair ironies abound: Christie imposed no caps on charter school heads, for example, and private schools for the disabled that get state contracts can pay their directors $225,734.

 

“I don’t know if people are sympathetic to someone earning the salaries these people earn,” Bozza says, but superintendents “are spending at levels they assumed” they could keep supporting.

 

The New Jersey School Boards Association also argues that the 2 percent cap on tax levy increases, which took effect in 2011, already curbs school spending, so a state dictate on superintendent pay is unnecessary. It’s a “cap within a cap,” says Raymond Wiss, immediate past president of the group.

 

“School boards have no interest in escalating the salaries of superintendents,” he adds, “but how much a superintendent is worth should be a local determination.”

 

As a board member in Northern Valley Regional High School District, Wiss has seen the cap’s consequences up close. Its chief, Jan Furman, stepped down when her $231,000 contract ended in June, 2011. Wiss said the board was fortunate to find an “excellent” replacement, Christopher Nagy, who was hired at $155,000 last year. (When he started work, 12 district employees made more than Nagy, but his board got the state’s permission to bump him up to $167,500 because he oversees a high school and a regional consortium of special education programs.)

 

“The depth of the applicant pool was noticeably” different from previous recruiting efforts, Wiss says. “It certainly did not include the number of quality candidates we had in past searches.”

 

If a district fails to get a top-notch leader, the impact on education could be “very detrimental,” Wiss said. “How do you measure that in dollars and cents?”

 

Email: brody@northjersey.com and sheingold@northjersey.com. On Twitter: @lesliebrody


Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608
609-394-2828



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