Why N.J. Should Shelve Superintendent Salary Caps

Today’s Wall St. Journal reports on South Orange-Maplewood’s Superintendent Brian Osbourne and his angst over leaving the North Jersey district to escape a salary cap of $167,500. After turning down the top job in Anne Arbor, Michigan last year, he decided to accept an offer from New Rochelle, NY, where he’ll start at $265,000, with no cap to restrict further salary increases.

His departure is certainly a loss for his district but no anomaly.

The article notes that Frank Alvarez left Montclair to go to New York’s Rye City (salary: $248.5K), Ros Montesano left Ramsey to go to Hastings on Hudson (salary: $239.5K) and Bernard Josefsberg left Leonia to go to Connecticut (salary: $217.4K).

A recent survey by New Jersey School Boards Association, which opposes the cap, “found that 219 out of 561 districts had turnover among superintendents, sometimes more than once, since the cap took effect. In 97 cases, districts cited the cap as the reason for the leader's departure. Many headed to jobs in Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York. Some retired.”

Gov. Christie implemented the salary cap in 2011 through D.O.E. regulations, not legislation. A current bill, sponsored by Sen. Teresa Ruiz (Essex) proposes to eliminate the cap. The bill, S 1987, has been referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, where it’s been sitting for a few months. It’s unclear anyway whether legislation supersedes regulation. For example, the recent PARCC contretemps was resolved through an Executive Order, not legislation.

The salary cap is problematic in more ways than chasing away great superintendents, especially in North Jersey where cost of living is higher and New York and Connecticut are a stone's through away. Principals, directors, and supervisors in NJ school districts have no regulatory caps, and over the last few years those salaries are, in some cases, approaching superintendent levels. Word on the street at the time of Christie’s edict was that districts would proactively cap other administrator salaries. Not so easy: most belong to the Principals and Supervisors Association and I don’t know of any districts that have successfully negotiated caps for those positions, nor do I know of any that have even tried.

And districts are constrained already by the 2% tax increase cap, which limits profligate salary increases all on its own.

In Princeton (Mercer County) teachers at the top of the salary guide who have Masters’ degrees plus thirty credits currently earn $104,243, which includes a longevity bonus. That’s not so different from superintendent salaries in small districts, who are capped at $125,000 and work twelve months a year, not ten.

The cap sunsets in 2016. It’s not soon enough.

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