August 24, 2008

For School Talent, Market Sets Pay


EW JERSEY used to grant tenure to school superintendents. It was the only state that did so.

The tenure law was doubtless seen as a reform when it was enacted in 1909. It protected educators from reprisals when they tried to do what was best for schools and children.

However, boards of education, elected to make policy decisions for their districts, found that superintendents could ignore them with impunity. The superintendents, with a guarantee of lifetime employment, could be dismissed only upon proof of incompetence or misconduct.

The balance of power had tipped. Now it was the superintendents who were dominant. The only realistic recourse a board had, confronted with a superintendent who was uncooperative or outright defiant, was to buy him or her out.

Between 1985 and 1991, there were 32 superintendent buyouts in the state, averaging $181,850. An approximation in today's dollars would be $275,000. The buyouts included nine in Bergen and Passaic counties, with one in Westwood, for $225,000, and one in West Milford, for $258,000. The buyouts were paid out of tax revenue.

After years of controversy, in 1991 the Legislature passed a bill, signed by former Gov. James Florio, eliminating tenure for superintendents. The measure, which had received bipartisan support, was hailed as, you guessed it, an overdue reform.

Administrative ceiling

Tenure for superintendents was replaced by renewable, three-to- five-year contracts. A board dissatisfied with its superintendent had to provide notice a year before the contract ended, to give him or her a chance to shape up or to find another job. The law applied to superintendents only, not to assistant superintendents or business administrators.

And what have been the results? Again, there have been unanticipated consequences.

First, the traditional ladder of promotion within a district, from teacher to principal to assistant superintendent to superintendent, has been effectively capped at the assistant superintendent level. Assistant superintendents have tenure, are paid six-figure salaries and are well along in their careers. When given the opportunity, many now decline promotion to superintendent and the attendant risk of being dismissed three or five years later.

Superintendents, on the other hand, have become contract players, like pitchers and infielders. Some are secure in their positions, with school boards happy with their work and anxious to retain their services. Others bounce from one job to another. Unlike professional ballplayers, once they sign a contract, they are not required to serve to the end.

The Record reported in 2004 that superintendent turnover statewide had reached 20 percent. Every year, one in five districts had to recruit a new superintendent. There were fewer qualified and willing candidates than formerly, resulting in longer searches for replacements, leading to the development of a new education specialist, the interim superintendent.

One, Raymond Albano, who had retired as superintendent in Old Tappan in 1995, served subsequently as interim leader in Harrington Park, Ho-Ho-Kus, Haworth, Northvale, Demarest, Oradell, Allendale, Cresskill and River Vale.

Superintendent salaries are now set through a market for such services. In the 100 districts in The Record's circulation area, superintendents currently average $185,663 a year, including contractual benefits like pay for unused sick and vacation leave. The average for the 12 highest-paid superintendents in North Jersey is $243,551.

Public vs. private

Some people think these pay levels are extravagant. However, in my column Wednesday, I presented figures for three of the top 12 superintendents leaders of a regional high school district, an urban Abbott district and an upper-middle-income K-12 suburban district.

The numbers indicated similar differences between the pay of superintendents and the teachers they lead. In each case, the superintendent is paid about 3.4 times as much as the average teacher. I don't find that shocking or unfair. Bosses should get more than the people they supervise, and a 3.4 ratio, top to bottom, is not excessive, considering that there are several intermediate administrative levels.

The State Commission of Investigation issued a report two years ago on unpublicized benefits granted by districts to superintendents. The commission treated the matter as a scandal. However, if such benefits are forbidden, the cash equivalents will be wrapped into higher base salaries in subsequent contracts. The market will see to that.

A new factor is the enactment of a law last year giving sweeping powers to county school superintendents, who are state officials. They can now veto local district decisions on hiring and paying superintendents, assistant superintendents and business administrators.

Recently, the state education commissioner, Lucille Davy, issued guidelines for the county superintendents: Administrators' contracts must be comparable in compensation, including benefits, to those in effect elsewhere in the region. Payment for life or disability insurance is forbidden. Payments to superintendents at departure or retirement must not be excessive.

The guidelines do not define the words comparable, region or excessive. The state Association of School Administrators filed a federal lawsuit contending that the guidelines were unconstitutionally vague. It is going to take a while to sort things out. I am betting, however, that in the end, one way or another, the market for good leadership will prevail.


James Ahearn is a contributing editor and former managing editor of The Record.

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