Ever since Gov. Chris Christie in late 2010 imposed tight limits on school superintendent pay, there was the presumption that this issue would ultimately have to be decided in the courts.
As more and more superintendents left their districts, and the state Legislature remained largely silent, a stream of legal challenges was the superintendents’ best hope for loosening the caps that cut back salaries across the state.
Yesterday, those hopes proved fleeting. A state appellate court ruled -- with particularly strong language – to uphold the caps, leaving school leaders grappling with what to do next.
In a 27-page decision that came less than a month after oral arguments, the three-judge panel said that the two superintendents who had brought the main challenge had no grounds to claim that the administration had overstepped its bounds when implementing the strict salary limits.
“In this case the Commissioner has done what the Legislature directed -- promulgate a regulation setting standards for contract review that will reduce excessive administrative expenditures,” wrote appellate Judge Jane Grall.
The caps limit superintendent salaries depending on the size of the district, from $125,000 in the smallest to $175,000 -- equal to the governor’s salary -- in larger ones. In roughly a dozen districts with more than 10,000 students, there is broader discretion but salaries still need to be approved by the state.
By the Book
The judges said that the administration had acted within the Legislature’s own laws, which give the state broad powers in controlling school costs.
Many of the laws it cited were enacted five years ago -- before Christie took office -- in the aftermath of revelations that some school leaders were padding their pay with exorbitant compensation packages.
The court also shot down the plaintiffs’ arguments that the administration had put the limits in place before the regulations were finished by essentially blocking any new contracts from being approved.
And it refuted the argument that the administration usurped the rights of local boards to set salaries, instead saying that the new caps only set guidelines that local boards must follow.
“The effect is wholly consistent with the Legislature's primary goal in providing oversight of school district spending and not inconsistent with the board's statutory authority to fix salary,” Gall wrote for the court.
Richard Bozza, the executive director of the state’s superintendents association, which was also a plaintiff in the challenges, said yesterday that the association was inclined to appeal to the state Supreme Court. It has 20 days to decide.
But he was clearly stunned by the extent of a ruling that rejected virtually all of the plaintiffs’ arguments. “We really didn’t prevail on anything,” he said.
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