Christie the Socialist

One of the tenets of education reform is fiscal and academic accountability, which has become a mantra of Chris Christie’s education agenda. Therefore, the announcement from the Governor’s Office that he’s moving ahead with plans to cap superintendent salaries based on the size of the district raises some cognitive dissonance. About 70% of New Jersey’s current superintendents will get salary cuts once their contracts expire, though school boards can offer one-year merit bonuses based on student performance; those bonuses are inapplicable to pensions.

Example: Roger Bayersdorfer, Superintendent of Franklin Lakes Public Schools in Bergen County now pulls down $223,600. School enrollment in this wealthy Bergen County district is less than 2,000 kids so his salary will be capped at $155,000 (although the Board can write as many as three one-year goals that could result in merit bonuses of up to 3.3% of the superintendent’s salary, or no more that 9.9%).

Bottom line: the most the Board can award Mr. Bayersdorfer is $170,000 and $15K of that won’t apply to his pension. That’s a pay cut of over $55K. Bye, bye, Mr. Bayersdorfer.

There’s no doubt a strong argument to be made that the Franklin Lakes School Board is overcompensating its superintendent. (No offense to that fine district: the Star-Ledger has a handy-dandy feature where you can access every administrator’s salary. Go ahead and pick your own example.) But is Gov. Christie really interested in interfering with a competitive marketplace? Since when is his shtick about placing caps on financial accountability or interfering with local governance?

Of course, the New Jersey Association for School Administrators has a long list of questions about the legislation, including whether the Christie Administration can justify paying school principals more than superintendents (many principals will now receive more than their bosses); whether NJ supers will flee to un-capped states; whether poor districts will suffer from a dearth of willing leadership; whether regional differences in cost-of-living should apply.

So what exactly is driving this initiative? EdWeek notes that part of the logic is the disparity in compensation between governors and superintendents. Joel Klein in New York City makes $250K but David Patterson makes $179K. The superintendent in Lincoln, Nebraska makes $255K but the governor there, David Heineman, makes $105K. The Star-Ledger, wildly supportive of the idea, notes that 75% of NJ superintendents make more than Gov. Christie and over 90% make more than the Education Commissioner.

But that’s a bad basis of comparison. The voting public doesn’t garner better candidates by increasing salaries for elected office. School districts do.

More importantly, doesn’t the salary cap on superintendents conflict with the move towards educators’ accountability? If New Jersey actually manages to incorporate elements of value-added assessments into salary guides, how does that square with arbitrary caps on teachers’ bosses?

Let’s get back to Franklin Lakes. The NJEA affiliate there just settled a contract which will increase teacher salaries by 3.5% per year. Teachers at the top rung will make $94,715, regardless of effectiveness, about 2/3 of what the superintendent can make under the new salary cap. Teacher compensation there, like every other traditional public district in NJ, is independent of classroom effectiveness or student growth. Under the new salary cap, superintendent performance and competitiveness in the marketplace is equally irrelevant. If the Christie Administration is trying to enforce a culture of accountability in the educational arena, it’s just taken a step backwards.

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