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N.J. taxpayers question school administrators' pay

Lately, when Cheryl Gismonde logs onto her Facebook account, she often finds messages that veer wildly from the usual array of restaurant recommendations and photos of other people's children.

David Campbell
David CampbellRead more

Lately, when Cheryl Gismonde logs onto her Facebook account, she often finds messages that veer wildly from the usual array of restaurant recommendations and photos of other people's children.

A recent post from one of her friends reads: "Burlington County has 39 school districts!! So let's figure the average Super makes $150K, maybe an assistant at $100K, and a Business Administrator at $90K. That's approx. $13 million and some of these Supers have districts with just 2-3 schools. Entirely too much $$ wasted on positions that arent hands-on with the ki. . .ds."

Similar messages are being posted by friends and fellow parents from around South Jersey on an almost daily basis, said Gismonde, a mother of three living in Cherry Hill.

"People are starting to get angry. They're asking why we need to give up teachers when we're floating another $50,000 to an administrator," she said. "People are posting this person's salary and that person's salary. It's getting pretty crazy."

With public schools across New Jersey facing historic budget cuts next school year, taxpayers - and the governor's office - are turning their attention to the matter of school administrator pay.

The average salary for a superintendent in New Jersey is $154,409, about $9,000 above the national average but below that of other states in the region, according a 2008 report commissioned by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators (NJASA).

That figure has risen in recent years as the job's demands have intensified with increased regulation under state and federal programs like No Child Left Behind, said NJASA executive director Richard Bozza.

"It's not a New Jersey-specific issue. We don't want to create a situation where we're making this an undesirable place for educators to work," he said. "Because of the depths of this recession, public service is going to be very closely monitored in the years ahead."

But the fact that more than 60 school administrators, primarily superintendents, make well in excess of $200,000 a year has become fodder for critics, especially considering Gov. Christie's salary of $175,000.

The debate over administrative pay recently played out in Cinnaminson, where a proposed $25,000 increase to the superintendent's salary drew protest from taxpayers and virtually assured the failure of the school budget, said Mayor Anthony Minniti.

"Cinnaminson as a community is fiercely loyal to its school district. It's part of the fabric of the town. Most of the educators live here," he said. "The [residents] will support raising of taxes when they feel they're getting value. But in this economic climate, in this year, a sharp eye was trained toward the increases given to the superintendent and the unions."

The Christie administration recently said it would look at administrator pay as it assesses school budgets for cost-saving measures. It is already engaged in a bitter feud with teachers' unions over pay increases.

"Most of the concessions that school districts have managed to get are from nonunion employees, like administrators," said Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association. The New Jersey Education Association, the state teachers' union, "has not been encouraging their members to reopen negotiations."

The recent rise in superintendent pay in part stems from the state's decision almost two decades ago to do away with tenure. Many superintendents in effect are free agents, moving among school districts and taking salary increases as they go, said Scott Oswald, superintendent of the Collingswood district.

"If a district is looking for someone, they'll look to those districts where there's been success, where a person's proven themself," he said.

And for those school districts where high test scores have come to be expected - the schools' reputation drawing new residents to town in droves - superintendents can get top dollar.

Cherry Hill School Board President Seth Klukoff said he has faced continued criticism in recent months over the district's veteran superintendent's salary, which in 2008-09 ranked second in the state at $262,931.

Superintendent David Campbell, who is nearing retirement, elected to take a salary freeze this school year, as did his top staff. But after voters rejected the school budget, the township ordered a $2.5 million reduction in the district's budget and suggested $800,000 in administrative cuts.

The school board ultimately decided only to reduce the administrative budget by $294,000, and instead further reduced the teaching ranks.

"Lost in this discussion is the critical role [administrators] play in keeping our students safe and providing a successful education program," Klukoff said. "They're inextricably linked."