The Superintendent Salary Cap: Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish
Editor’s Note: This is the first blog entry by new NJPP Research Fellow Richard Snyder, who will focus on education policy. He was a member of the Ramsey Board of Education for 18 years, and sat on the New Jersey School Boards Association Board of Directors. He is also the founder and former executive director of Dollar$ & Sense Education Advocacy.
This post also appeared as an op-ed in the March 25, 2013 edition of the Bergen Record.
Sometimes I agree with those who say, “There’s too much government in my life.”
Using the broadest possible paintbrush, New Jersey in 2010 decided that school superintendents make too much money. In response to the misbehavior of very few and the demands for relief, the administration decided to set an upper limit for superintendent’s salaries. The cap is set at the governor’s $175,000 salary; why that’s appropriate I don’t know.
What I do know is that I’ve invested heavily in my town, Ramsey. I bought my home here. I pay a property tax bill that is substantial. Our school district has an annual budget of nearly $55 million. To protect my investment, I want the best executive we can get. A highly qualified potential star of the future isn’t what I want.
But we’re told that we can’t pay the school district’s CEO what the market and the taxpayers of this town thinks he or she is worth. I don’t like that one bit. It’s our money, our town, and our kids. It should be our decision.
So what does the cap on superintendent salaries really save, and what does it really cost? When dollars are used to drive a decision, it is how the numbers are spun that determines public perception. Evaluating the decision requires an analysis that looks at all sides of the issue.
On the generous side, we can estimate that the superintendent’s salary cap saves every district $50,000 per year. Based on the 550 districts that employ a superintendent, the total annual savings would be $27.5 million. (This is well beyond what the governor projected when he implemented the cap.) That sounds like a very worthy goal.
But what if we spin it another way, and compare that $27.5 million in savings to the approximately $25 billion New Jersey spends each year for PreK-12 public education, (the state’s $9 billion dollar education budget plus $15-16 billion from property taxes). If we do that, the savings is less than 0.2 of one percent. In short, the savings is invisible, as in bupkis.
We can also look at a per-child basis. With about 1.3 million children in our schools, we achieve a savings of approximately $21 per child – on an overall cost of about $17,000 per child. That works out to a little more than one-tenth of one percent in savings. Doesn’t sound like such a worthy goal. Don’t rule it out though, at least not until we know what it costs to achieve these savings.
To evaluate this decision, let’s first look at the plus side: I’m going to have my tax burden reduced by $21 for each child in the district.
On the downside, many experienced New Jersey superintendents – our state’s educational leadership – are opting for early retirement or fleeing to other states. There is an active market for talented leadership. Since the regulation was enacted, Bergen County alone has lost 16 very accomplished superintendents. Some went across the state line to New York, one went to be a principal in elsewhere in New Jersey. Ten others, to the best of my knowledge, just retired. These crucial leaders are usually replaced by interim superintendents or young and inexperienced educators. Experience and institutional memories vanish. It makes me worry about my investment. The quality of the public schools is the most critical factor in protecting my investment in my home and my community. When the schools meet their goals, the equity in my home grows and local business has a chance to prosper.
I’m also a parent, and I worry about how these changes affect my children. This demand for increased rigor in our schools is widespread. Combine this with the need to meet changing 21st century conditions and increased poverty across the country. I’d say that the need has never been greater for experienced leaders.
At organizations of all kinds, it’s the leadership that makes the difference. Huge corporations, sports teams, states and local communities, even the local chorus: They all make do with less when there is effective leadership. Education researchers say the impact of leadership is second only to quality teachers and curriculum. Isn’t it logical that I would want the best possible leader for our schools?
Constant effective leadership is even more important in education than in many other businesses, because the human stakes are so high. Sports teams can “re-build” after a bad season; the next year they will have higher draft pick and be a better team. Companies can decide to take a write-off and suffer the short-term loss; dollars can be made up in future years. But what students lose today while others are “getting their house in order” can never be made up. Are we willing to write off a generation of children while the grown-ups get their house in order?
The superintendent salary cap has been in place for nearly three years. It’s time for the Commissioner of Education to assess the true value of quality leadership, compare that to the $21 per child per year that New Jersey’s parents save due to the cap, and return the decision on leadership to local school boards.