Court Hears Arguments on Superintendent Salary Caps
Cap or limit? Legal or not? Three-judge appellate panel takes the case under consideration.
Gov. Chris Christie’s caps on school superintendent salaries have drawn plenty of questions as to whether they are fair and fitting for schools, and their leadership --as well as to taxpayers.
Yesterday in an 11th floor courtroom in the Essex County Courthouse in Newark an even more fundamental question was debated: are the caps that have roiled school districts statewide legal?
Almost two years after the caps were put in place, lawyers for the state and for administrators faced off before a three-judge state appellate court panel hearing challenges to the limits. Basically, most district superintendents earn between $120,000 and $175,000, depending on student enrollment
Two different complaints were heard in the oral arguments, both contending that Christie and his education commissioner at the time, Rochelle Hendricks, did not have the authority to enact the limits under state statute.
The lawyers for the three superintendents and the New Jersey Association of School Administrators argued that while the Legislature empowered the administration to review and approve superintendent contracts to save money, it never intended the stark limits imposed by regulation in February 2011.
The lawyers cited separate statutes that give local boards the authority to set salaries and also prohibit them from cutting those salaries during a superintendent’s term in office.
Arguably, the biggest impact of the law has been in prompting superintendents to step down when their contracts expire at the higher pay, rather than take salary cuts. Nearly 100 New Jersey superintendents retired in the past year, and half of all districts have seen the job turn over since the new limits were enacted.
Standards or Salaries
The lawyers contended that the state was permitted under 2007 law to set “standards” or benchmarks, but the Legislature specifically stayed away from capping salaries.
“We can look to the plain language of those statute: there is nothing in the expressed language that allows the commissioner to cap the salaries of school superintendents,” said Andrew Babiak, attorney for Passaic City Superintendent Robert Holster.
Holster saw his pay drop from $218,000 to $177,000 when his last contract expired this past year. He also has filed a separate complaint against his own board for failing to follow required steps in the contract dispute.
Maria LePore, attorney for the administrators association, cited several places where the Legislature in that statute called for salary limits on other positions, including the state’s own executive county superintendent who was reviewing the contracts.
“You presume the Legislature understood the terms when it drafted statute,” she said. “They certainly know what salary meant, and they chose to exclude it.”
But the three judges on the panel appeared skeptical about the plaintiff's arguing that there was a blurring between what was a standard and what was a limit.
Judge Jose Fuentes, the presiding judge, said the judiciary itself faces significant standards in its work, more than just guidelines. “The word standard as we use it limits us in significant ways,” he said.
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