Education buffs and free-market fans cringe as Christie cap zaps school chiefs

UNION – A Department of Education director read eyes down from a piece of paper and the people exercised the public airing of the grievances tonight in Union County, but at the end of the day, Gov. Chris Christie’s superintendent salary cap is coming on Feb. 7, 2011. Look out district CEOs and their chauffeurs.

Christie is tying superintendent salaries almost solely to student populations, personally issuing pay cuts to 366 school superintendents statewide by way of executive decree.

At the bottom end of the scale, a K-8 superintendent with fewer than 250 students would be capped at $120,000. At the top end, a district with up to 10,000 students could pay their schools chief a maximum of $175,000.

Other regulations are also included, for instance abolishment of chauffeurs for superintendents.

Yearly performance bonuses set by the local Boards of Education are allowed, with county superintendent approval, but do not figure into pension calculations.

Eric Taylor, state Department of Education director of statutes and codes, read the cap regulations from an otherwise empty dais tonight in a small, nondescript campus administration building at Kean University.

Then he acted as blocking dummy for a queue of school-supportive linebackers. Local education officials from the northern regions talked about the predictable decay of leadership in their districts and erstwhile Christie supporters ratcheted up the open-market rhetoric.

The state is depriving taxpayers in successful school districts the right to spend as they wish on educational leadership, said Mike Sockol of the Holmdel Board of Education.

Holmdel has been honored among the best schools in the nation, he said, and was dubbed the best district in Monmouth County by NJ Magazine.

That said, the superintendent in Holmdel is currently $50,000 over the cap, which will result in a savings of one-tenth of one percent of the schools budget once the cap is enforced, Sockol said.

With graduation and college acceptance rates near 100 percent, “Why would we risk that level of performance for that one-tenth of a percent?”

Also, the superintendent accepted a pay freeze on her own in the tough economic environment, he said.

All the new cap regs stand to do, according to Sockol, is “institutionalize mediocrity,”

Also, “Where is the deputy commissioner of education?” he asked. “Is this not important enough?”

The cap directive from Christie refers to a 2006 State Commission of Investigation report of taxpayer abuse. It mentions that the head of the entire state schools department – the commissioner of education – is capped at a salary of $141,000.

So, it concludes, the person overseeing the appropriation of millions in funding to hundreds of districts in the state is incongruously making less than many of the district heads he or she is dealing with.

But public speakers tonight said the same logic will apply in many district post-cap; assistant superintendents, other administrators, and some educators could be making more than their bosses.

Joseph Ricca, superintendent of East Hanover, called the move a “political play to make a quick impact,” without taking into account unintentional consequences awaiting the districts.

Ricca told Christie to let the market govern the pay scale, a turn for good old self determination.

“I respectfully submit to your committee of one,” Ricca said in jest of the lonesome bureaucrat at the table, “What metric has been used to establish these arbitrary caps? Student enrollment, what more? Were economic experts consulted?”

Christie is banking on a total of $9.8 million in taxpayer dollars saved, but some officials said the local saving is negligible.

John Sincaglia, who sits on the Berkley Heights Board of Education, said the local taxpayers will save approximately $2 per person from the regs, but he thinks the costs outweigh the savings.

He also said the regulations were questionable and at times arbitrary.

Why weren’t regional costs of living variations factored in, he asked, and how were tier boundaries established?

Should student number 1,501 be worth $10,000 per year to a superintendent?

Will the governor create a cap to prevent state universities from paying football coaches $2 million, Sincaglia queried?

He greatly took offense to the fact that Christie is stalling approved contracts until the regs kick in.

“The old rules are not suspended,” Sincaglia said. “It seems to me we are singling out superintendents because we can…Who would aspire to be new leaders.”

Some district and school chiefs have been trying to beat the cap deadline, starting with Jersey City Superintendent Dr. Charles Epps, whose early and potentially excessive contract extension has been held hostage by the state for months, and ending with Parsippany Superintendent Dr. LeRoy Seitz, whose contract extension was publicly nullified by the state this week.

Parsipanny-Troy Hills school board member Robert Crawford spoke at the meeting tonight. He was one of two votes on the board against the contract extension for Seitz.

In a district of limping taxpayers, union negotiations have stalled for three years while pay increases have been foregone, unaffiliated worker wages were frozen, and health plans were swapped on custodians.

All the while, the superintendent is netting nearly a quarter million dollars, Crawford said.

“How are we going to sit face to face with these unions,” he said, waiting for the inevitable, “You just gave our boss a 2 percent (pay) increase and guaranteed contract for five years.” That’s nearly a $4,000 per year raise, he said.

Crawford told The Record that the board tried to include several other perks in the Seitz contract – a $3,600 life insurance policy, $6,057-per-day sick day buy-back, and an automatic $500 per month in travel expenses – but were disallowed by the county superintendent.

Acting Commissioner of Education Rochelle Hendricks directed county superintendents to begin a “comprehensive review of all superintendent contracts.” In the meantime, the state is freezing all contracts and contract extensions. No contracts that expire after Feb. 7, 2011 will be authorized unless they submit to the pending cap regulations.

Franklin Lakes board members showed up to confront the new regulations.

Kathy Schwartz decried the unilateral approach Christie took, without consulting the state Boards of Ed.

Her colleague, Margaret Bennett, called it an “act of bullying” by Christie that will hurt small districts “where superintendents wear many hats.”

“We’re losing our ability to attract the talent we deserve,” Bennett said.

About 70 percent of the state’s school superintendents currently earn above the proposed salary caps.

In addition, administrator compensation would be restructured to provide the opportunity for non-pensionable, individual year merit stipends if superintendents achieve significant, state-defined improvements in student learning from the year before.

“Raises will no longer be automatic but will be earned, based on how students are performing in a school district,’’ Hendricks said in a release.

Local districts can develop the criteria for the one-year incentives based specific educational objectives and approved by the county superintendent, but the bonus will not count toward a superintendent’s pension.

The pay caps tiers are based solely on district student population: between 0-250 students, max $125,000; between 251– 750 students, max $135,000; between 751–1,500 students, max $145,000; between 1,501–3,000 students, max $155,000; between 3,001–6,500 students, max $165,000; between 6,501–10,000 students, max $175,000; and 10,000-plus students, commissioner may approve a cap waiver, on a per case basis.

Superintendents may earn $10,000 more for each additional district they supervise, and they can receive an additional stipend of $2,500 if their district includes a high school.

For a complete look at the regulations, visit www.state.nj.us/education/paycaps.

Three other public hearings are scheduled for 6 p.m., on Nov. 29 at the North Warren Regional High School auditorium in Blairstown; on Dec. 2 at Cumberland County College, Conference and Events Center, Vineland; and Dec. 7 at Burlington County Institute of Technology, Westampton Campus auditorium, Westampton.

Education buffs and free-market fans cringe as Christie cap zaps school chiefs