Verona and Cedar Grove BOE speak on bill to repeal salary caps

Three years, one bill, and multiple administrators later, Board of Education members in Verona and Cedar Grove speak out in support of a bill that would prohibit a state-imposed salary limit for school superintendents.

Back in 2011, a law took effect Feb. 7 applying salary caps on New Jersey superintendents of schools. Since then, Senate Committee Chair M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29) has written Senate Bill 1987, which would repeal the law.

Board of Education members in Verona and Cedar Grove know the effects a salary cap can impose on a school district, as both boards have hired new superintendents since the bill’s inception.

The current law sets a maximum superintendent salary based on school district enrollments. For example, a salary of $125,000 would be the limit for a superintendent of a 250-student district, $135,000 for up to 750 students, $145,000 for 751 to 1,500 students, $155,000 for 1,501 to 3,000 students, $165,000 for up to 6,500 students, and $175,000 for a district with up to 10,000 students.

Based on 2012-2013 data supplied last year by the New Jersey Department of Education, the average superintendent salary in New Jersey is $158,735, according to Jeanette Rundquist of the New Jersey School Board Association.

“This cap limits school districts simply based on number of students,” said Cedar Grove Board of Education Vice President Pamela Burke. “Small school districts can require more expertise than larger districts because they cannot support layers of administration, [and] require applicants to have more experience and be more hands on than their counterparts in larger schools,” Burke said.

Like his counterpart in Cedar Grove, Verona’s Michael Unis also disagrees with the bill, noting how qualified supervisors in New Jersey have resigned in the past for better financial opportunities. “In Verona, we’ve hired two superintendents since this bill’s inception with two additional interim during that same timeframe,” Unis said.

“The salary in Verona is capped at $157,500 ($155,000 plus $2,500 because the district has its own high school),” Verona Board of Education President John Quattrocchi stated in an email.

Two of the last three Verona superintendents left due to the salary constraints; the third, according to Quattrocchi, left for a role in his home town for the same pay.

The original intention for the bill was to lower taxpayer and school district costs and to regulate budgets throughout the state. For these reasons, Verona board member Joe Bellino has a positive outlook on the cap.

“The law was intended to help keep administrative costs down. It has been effective in doing that and has helped bring some new blood into the position statewide,” Bellino said.

When the cap was originally proposed, other controls were, and are, still in effect. For instance, “all administrators’ salaries are reviewed by the state’s Executive County Superintendents before they can go into effect. So if there were no caps, the superintendent compensation packages would still be subject to state review,” Rundquist stated in an email to the Times.

Additionally, a spending growth limit exists, restricting increases in school districts’ administrative budgets. A 2 percent tax levy cap is also in place, according to Rundquist.

Being that those rules already existed, the salary caps were viewed as grossly unnecessary.

“As far as I’m concerned, any law or regulation to put a cap on a price is folly. So a law to repeal a law that should never have been passed in the first place is a good law,” Verona BOE member Steve Spardel said.

Now with a repeal in place, pending approval by the Senate, school districts are left waiting to see what happens next. According to Rundquist, it is unknown when the bill will be voted on in the full Senate.

“I hope that it goes through,” Cedar Grove board member Frank Mandala said. “I’m in favor of the repeal. I think that the cap definitely hinders and limits the candidate pool,” Mandala said, adding that current Cedar Grove Superintendent of Schools Michael Fetherman is young and motivated and will be hard to keep with the current salary cap in place.

Quattrocchi said there has been an unnecessary turnover of experienced superintendents and a deterioration of candidate quality for vacancies statewide. Qualified educators have less financial incentive to make the move to a superintendent seat, especially when that move includes giving up tenure.

When tackling the topic of financial benefits the cap was supposed to impose on property taxes, Quattrocchi stated that “of the entire universe of public employees, superintendents comprise a fraction of the population. For a town like Verona, [the cap] affects the average property taxpayer about $10 or less in a tax bill of approximately $10,100 per year.”

Following suit with Quattrocchi, Unis stated that “when it comes to the original bill’s design for cost savings, let’s hope we don’t regret the price we paid for it.”

Experienced in the effects of the salary cap, and hopeful for a district beyond the restrictions, the majority of Verona and Cedar Grove BOE members hope to see a change in legislation; mainly so they can take the back the helms of their districts.

“The facts are that the best run school districts in the country are those with local control,” Quattrocchi said, “with that, the salaries a community pays its public professionals should be determined by that community, not a bureaucrat who couldn’t locate that town on a map.”

The Times also reached out to Board of Education members James Day, Joseph Cicala, Laura Marinelli and Christine Dye, but they did not return a call by press time.

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