Controlling school costs and the high property taxes that cover them is a never-ending job in New Jersey. One specific element of that effort recently was reversed, not unreasonably, which means the state will have to ensure its beneficial aspects continue.
In 2010, the administration of Gov. Chris Christie issued regulations capping superintendent salaries at $125,000 in the smallest school districts and at $175,000 in districts of up to 10,000 students (with some leeway to pay more in larger districts or under certain circumstances).
Along with the 2% limit on annual property-tax increases, the ceiling for superintendent pay was a response to out-of-control property taxes, already the worst in the nation. Many superintendent salaries in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties were around $200,000 a year, and in North Jersey much higher. The superintendent in Keansburg, a borough of 10,000 in Monmouth County, was getting a pay package of $500,000.
The New Jersey Association of School Administrators sued to stop the cap, but the courts upheld it. The appellate court ruling said, “There is nothing arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable in the (state education) commissioner’s effort to rein in spending with salary caps based on enrollment.”
Some school boards made an end-run around the cap, using a provision in the regulations to award superintendents bonuses up to 15% of their salaries. The superintendent of the Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District in 2015, for example, got a $24,750 bonus, bringing his total pay to $189,750. Bonuses for superintendents cost taxpayers at least half of the break they were getting from the salary cap.
A Rutgers University researcher figured the cap reduced the average pay for superintendents by $19,000. An analysis by NJ Spotlight found that the salaries stabilized, little changed in 2018 from the average of about $156,000 in 2010.
There was a cost, though. Many superintendents left for greener pastures, and their average years of experience dropped from 30 years to 22 years. And in some cases, assistant superintendents and other administrators wound up with higher pay than their bosses.
In 2017, the final year of the Christie administration, the cap for larger districts was increased to $191,584 to help address such issues. Now a bill ending the cap has been passed with bipartisan support and signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy.
Its sponsor, Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, said the new rules won’t begin a return to the lax oversight that led to “some very egregious contracts.” She said the cap had provided time “to put a framework in place” for oversight. Sen. Thomas Kean, R-Union, said pulling back now was appropriate after “we reset the system in a positive way.”
One help will be the continuing 2% cap, not just on property tax increases but on overall administration pay hikes. Another will be the new law’s guidelines for limiting or standardizing bonuses, golden parachutes and other fringe benefits.
State and local officials, though, will have to act responsibly in the absence of the superintendent cap, which they failed to do previously. That means the public and taxpayers must watch to see that this part of providing an efficient education is honored. If not, it will be time to push for the reintroduction of the cap.