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School chief's pay criticized

Two Assembly members want Gov. Corzine to veto a raise given Camden's Bessie LeFra Young.

Two New Jersey Assembly members are calling on Gov. Corzine to veto the pay raise granted to Camden's school superintendent last month.

Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande and Assemblyman Declan J. O'Scanlon Jr., both Monmouth County Republicans, object to the $6,600 increase for Bessie LeFra Young, one of the highest-paid superintendents in the state. The Camden school board approved the measure May 11.

Sara Davis, president of the board, said the raise was reasonable and tied to the cost of living. The call for a veto is "a political charade," she said.

The increase, to take effect next month, would bring Young's salary to $226,600.

Her contract calls for annual cost-of-living adjustments and allows other raises based on evaluations. Such provisions are common in superintendent contracts, according to education authorities.

The raise comes after budget and staff cuts in the district. In April, the school board approved a budget with more than $7 million in cuts, including the elimination of about 90 positions. Forty-six were vacant.

A written statement from Casagrande and O'Scanlon said: "In times of economic hardship, good leaders should set an example of shared sacrifice instead of keeping their hands out for personal benefit."

Young did not get a raise last year, district business administrator David Shafter said. Davis said she didn't recall the issue coming up.

When told of the legislators' objections, Young said: "Camden has made great strides that we're often not recognized for."

During her tenure, standardized-test scores have improved at several schools, Young noted. The budget also has been submitted on schedule for the first time in years, she said.

Young said she had spent her own money for student activities and contributed to scholarships.

At the meeting when Young's raise was approved, the board also voted to renew her three-year contract when it expires in 2010. Terms will be negotiated, Shafter said.

The superintendent is entitled to perks, including use of a cell phone for district business, a home computer and facsimile machine, a laptop computer, a district auto, and expenses subject to board approval.

Young said she had turned down the car. According to Shafter, she also does not use her $400-a-month gas allowance.

Under the Camden Municipal Rehabilitation and Recovery Act of 2002, Corzine can veto Camden board actions, but Shafter said the governor already had approved the minutes of the meeting.

Corzine spokesman Robert Corrales said the governor did not intend to revisit the issue of Young's raise.

"The language of her contract calls for a cost-of-living increase, and the board acted accordingly to cap the increase at 3 percent," Corrales said.

In 2006, Corzine rejected a pact that would have paid Young's predecessor, Annette D. Knox, $208,000 in its final year. And in 2008, his refusal to approve board minutes effectively vetoed seven administrative appointments and four proposed union contracts.

Despite the gains Young noted, Camden's students struggle academically and the district performs below the state average, O'Scanlon and Casagrande said in their statement. Taxpayers deserve more for their investment, the legislators said.

The two have sponsored a bill that would impose a statewide model for superintendent contracts to ensure uniform salaries and benefits. O'Scanlon also has proposed legislation that would cap superintendents' retirement packages.

New Jersey School Boards Association spokesman Frank Belluscio said it was not unusual for superintendents' contracts to specify raises based on performance, inflation, or other factors.

It is not unheard of for public servants to accept lower compensation, however.

In December, Chatham Superintendent Jim O'Neill was among 27 administrators in the Morris County district who announced they would limit their raises to 2 percent in the coming fiscal year. Some were eligible for as much as 6 percent, said O'Neill, whose salary is $205,000 and who was in line for a 4 percent bump.

"It seemed to us the responsible thing to do," he said.