educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

NJ moving to remove superintendent salary cap restrictions

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Last month, the New Jersey State Senate moved to eliminate a state-imposed cap on superintendent salaries, according to the NJ School Board Association (NJSBA). Reversing legislation from a few years ago, this effort will be good for NJ children.

The Department of Education created salary cap legislation, under Governor Chris Christie, in 2011. I get the idea behind it. By limiting superintendent salaries largely based on district size, the restrictions aimed to help schools, but they did the opposite.

Because of the caps, many small-school administrative jobs simply became stepping stones to larger districts. NJSBA data collected in 2014 found that “the salary caps have been a major factor in superintendent turnover and have resulted in a decrease in experience levels of superintendent candidates.” This makes it difficult to establish continuity in admin jobs, creating unstable conditions at many small schools.

By ending the caps, the legislators recognized this problem. I think, though, their actions reinforce an important, broader message: We all pay for public education. Everyone knows that if your district is rich the schools are often better off. That’s life in America. I too like money. I get it. But by strapping small districts with a cap, we hurt them in systemic ways that damage the whole educational mission.

If the state of New Jersey wants to encourage district consolidation, it should do so in open, direct ways. Let’s have a genuine conversation. People often frame such conversations in terms of schools. It’s easy to criticize a school — just look at the overabundance of pathetic school rankings at all levels (especially the U.S. News high school list, which on principle I won’t even link to here).

But we should always be talking about children, front and center. If you attack schools, that doesn’t sound so bad; but if you attack the kids in those schools — well, perhaps for some that’s why it’s better to talk schools.

If you’re all worked up when you hear a salary cap is being removed for a public employee, in this case, I think you can relax. Based on my board experience, salaries and money matters in public schools are very transparent. You don’t need these caps. As NJSBA executive director Lawrence Feinsod put it, “When the restriction was first proposed, NJSBA opposed the cap, terming it an unnecessary ‘cap within caps.’” Multiple layers of oversight and statutes are in place to control salaries. Also, you cannot compare education to business. Many rules obstruct people from running a school like a business: Strict guidelines about budget surpluses, for instance, that make it almost impossible for schools to save for the future.

Talented people can and should seek more money for their talents. According to the NJSBA research, “The salary caps have been a major factor in superintendent turnover and have resulted in a decrease in experience levels of superintendent candidates.” The cap created a real problem for small districts by forcing administrators who want to climb the salary ladder to move to larger districts.

Talent, even in an altruistic profession like public education, will move to where it’s supported and rewarded. Removing the salary caps will help prevent what Feinsod called a possible “vacuum of educational leadership.”

We need to make sure all districts can recruit and maintain talented leaders. I’m lucky in my two districts, Riverton and Palmyra. The transparent nature of the school oversight process is check enough.

Children are not widgets. Regardless of overall district size, one child always equal one child, and, dammit, they all deserve a fair educational playing field.

Summer’s upon us. As you can see by my “dammit,” it’s time for a break. I’ll see you in a month.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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4 Responses to “NJ moving to remove superintendent salary cap restrictions”

  1. Way too many layers of BS in the administration of the education system. Way too much catering to everyone with a bs condition, feelings and mom and dad inputs. Make the system more like the military. Everyone gets treated the same, one guy screw’s up everyone gets punished. Promote the top performers in any given field. If they have a knack for math, science or shop push them in that direction early. Maybe we’ll get some kids with some purpose and less English majors playing freaking D&D.

  2. I think this is a double-edged sword. Tax revenue, being a commodity, can be disproportionately channeled to “panacea administrator” hires, while teachers ultimately contend with smaller raises, because those contract increases must ultimately by approved by a highly compensated superintendent who actually will personally gain when the percentage of tax dollars allocated to union teachers is smaller.

  3. “One child always equals one child.” Thrilled they are removing the cap restriction. Thrilled with this article! You da bomb!

  4. Cap or no cap, there are too many superintendents, too many districts, too many schools, wasting too much money. You mentioned your two districts – Riverton and Palmyra. Take your month off and prepare a defense for why there should be two districts. Then add in Cinnaminson and tell us why the three of them should not be one school district. Pal-Riv take up barely 3.5 square miles and maybe has 10,000 total residents. The only reason Palmyra even exists is that the state took land from Riverton and Cinnaminson to create it in the first place. No one with half a brain can deny the benefits of creating a single school district within this geography. It has been a debate for years, even preceding the arrival of the Warnock clan. I remember my mom serving on the Riverton school board in the 70’s/80’s and talking about the “almost done deal” to combine with Cinnaminson. Alas, it never happened, probably because Cinnaminson didn’t want, or need at the time, what was being offered. SO where is that discussion today? It should be happening across the financially bankrupt state of NJ – in every district. And then when you are done with schools, talk about police, fire, and EMT. This is not just a NJ issue either. But having escaped the ridiculous NJ tax burden, I would think the residents I left behind would be looking for ways to reduce costs while improving efficiencies and quality – for the kids of course. Or you can keep sitting on your hands and paying your crazy taxes. I am sure Hillary will fix it for you, just like Obama fixed everything he touched.

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