Schools Superintendents Sue State Over Pay Caps

New Jersey Association of School Administrators says governor's policy is illegal.

The association representing New Jersey school superintendents is looking to block Gov. Chris Christie's plan to cap school leaders' pay, with a lawsuit filed in Morris County Thursday.

The suit names Morris County Executive Superintendent Kathleen Serafino, acting Commissioner of Education Rochelle Hendricks and the state Department of Education as the defendants. It claims the state has no authority to interfere with school board decisions about administrator pay, and says the salary caps are illegal.

New Jersey legislative law “specifically vest[s] the authority to fix salaries for school superintendents with the boards of education,” reads the complaint, filed by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators along with two Morris County school superintendents.

Under a plan put forth by Christie last year, and set to take effect Feb. 7, most school districts could pay their top officials no more than $175,000 per year—the same salary the governor makes. Salary caps are set on a scale by district population; smaller districts would have lower ceilings for superintendent pay.

When current Superintendent of Schools Dr. Daniel Fishbein's contract runs out in 2012, he or the next superintendent would be paid $165,000 annually under the caps when his contract expires, based on the district's approximate enrollment of 5,800 children. There are minor "performance" bonuses he could attain to boost the salary slightly, measures that must be hit annually.

The local Board of Education . Board member Sheila Brogan wrote a letter to the State Department of Education in December, calling Ridgewood's superintendent job one that's "not for the meek".

The letter noted the totality of Fishbein's responsibilities (overseeing an $89 million budget, 600 employees, 5,800 students) and the possibility that he, like others, will leave for greener pastures if he's forced to take a paycut when his contract expires. Fishbein voluntarily gave up a contractual pay raise on his $216,000 salary again in 2010-2011. The proposed cut represents a $40,000 loss in pay.

"The proposed state regulations that cap superintendent salaries significantly interfere with a Board’s legal responsibility to negotiate a fair and reasonable contract with the superintendent," Brogan wrote in her letter, available on the district's Web site.

District superintendent contracts typically go to county executive superintendents for review. But on Nov. 15, Hendricks ordered Serafino and other county executive superintendents to hold off on approving any such contracts that exceed the cap—even though the cap hasn't yet taken effect.

Hendricks told each county executive superintendent to conduct a “comprehensive review" of any contracts. Until the reviews are completed, she said, no new contracts should be approved.

Christie then did not renew the contracts of seven county executive superintendent with one day's notice, a move school districts and the superintendent's union condemned. One who met the axe was Patrick Piegari, appointed in December after the retirement of Aaron Graham. 

The governor and Department of Education have remained firm, battling political heat and pledging to reign in costs despite the tension.

"Gov. and acting Commissioner Hendricks are saying no and working with county executive superintendents to stop these abuses that come at the expense of New Jersey children and restoring fiscal sanity by bringing school superintendents’ salaries under control," the state Department of Education said in a news release issued in December. "

Editor James Kleimann contributed to this article.


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