TRENTON — While Gov. Chris Christie’s administration is moving to loosen the salary cap it imposed on school superintendents, the Legislature is moving to lift the cap entirely.

The Senate Education Committee voted along party lines this week to ban the state from regulating what local districts can pay superintendents. An array of education associations supported the move, even while thanking Christie for meeting them halfway in changing the rules.

The policy is “misguided and ill-conceived” and wrongly takes decisions out of the hands of elected school boards, said Jonathan Pushman, a lobbyist for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

“There has been some movement on the cap that has brought some much-needed discretion and flexibility back to local school districts, but we don’t think it’s enough. Our association isn’t going to be satisfied until that cap is eliminated entirely,” Pushman said.

The state Department of Education is currently taking testimony on a revised cap that allows salaries ranging from $147,794 to $191,584, up from $125,000 to $175,000, plus maintains extra pay for school superintendents who head multiple districts or oversee a high school.

One new wrinkle, designed to help districts retain their leaders, would allow superintendents who are reappointed to get 2 percent raises each year beyond the cap.

Melanie Schulz, director of government relations for New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said the Christie administration didn’t go as far as her group hoped.

“We worked successfully with them to get them to a place where they’re comfortable and we’re comfortable. This is not to say that this is where we want it to end,” Schulz said.

Schulz was under no illusions about the current bill’s prospects for being enacted – at least until a new governor is in place.

“Hopefully we will revisit this issue in the future,” Schulz said. “I mean, I don’t know that the administration would sign this into law.”

Christie created the cap in his first year as governor, estimating it would cut spending by around $10 million statewide. The regulations were temporary, and the revamped version could be approved and in place in time for the upcoming school year.

The salary cap was needed to end contract abuses but has had unintended consequences, said Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

“It is more of a detriment than I think was the intention to save money for districts,” Ruiz said. “I think it’s the responsibility of the district if they have funding in their budget to make their decision on hiring someone who is capable and that won’t necessarily at some point make less than perhaps a sitting principal, which is really troubling.”

“It creates an unintended consequence that really become a disincentive to have the best people become the chief operators of our districts and instead perhaps moving to a lower-level position or seek employment outside the state of New Jersey,” Ruiz said.

The committee’s two Republicans – Sens. Diane Allen and Michael Doherty – voted against prohibiting the salary cap. Doherty said he was voting “heck no,” suggesting public officials shouldn’t be paid more than the governor’s salary of $175,000.

“I don’t think anybody, any public servant in New Jersey, has a more difficult job than the governor. The size and scope of his responsibilities and duties is tremendous,” Doherty said. “I’m not denigrating anything the superintendents do. I’m sure they do a great job, and they’re good public servants. But at the end of the day, they are public servants. They are public employees. And those who desire to make significantly more should perhaps consider entering the private enterprise side of the house.”

Doherty said the outgoing superintendent of schools in the Warren Hills Regional School Districts will receive a pension of $120,000, while his wife, who also worked for the schools, will receive $76,000. That deferred compensation must be taken into account, Doherty said.

“The fact remains that these superintendents are in the pension system, that people in the private sector are not in the pension system. And I’ll sign up today. Anybody else want to sign up with me for a $120,000 a year pension? Because let’s go do it,” Doherty said.

Doherty said there were 35 applicants for the superintendent opening, with the salary cap in place.

“The idea that we need to increase salaries to get people, the facts don’t show that,” Doherty said.

Ruiz said the comparison between what the governor and school superintendents are paid isn’t a judgment call on which job is more important. It’s about recruitment and retention and ending an approach that discourages people from seeking superintendent positions, she said.

“When you run for the position of governor of New Jersey, it’s always been at that salary. So you know what you’re getting into,” Ruiz said.

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