Sunday, June 15, 2008
New Jersey's top school officials rake in huge salaries
By JIM McCONVILLE and MATTHEW McGRATH
GANNETT NEW JERSEY
New Jersey has an expanded "200 Club" — superintendents and school administrators with salaries of $200,000 or more.
The number of superintendents and administrators in that exclusive club has grown 28 percent since the 2005/06 school year, rising from 13 to 48 this year, according to a Gannett New Jersey review of new public school salary data.
Once the sole domain of superintendents, those being paid more than $200,000 a year now include assistant superintendents, business administrators and even one elementary school vice principal. Most of the highly paid educators are in northern New Jersey and urban school districts.
State Department of Education Commissioner Lucille E. Davey said large-sized percent salary increases may eventually become a thing of the past, once her proposed new guidelines for county superintendents and local school boards are put into play.
"The guidelines would really show what will and won't be acceptable as we do our review of these school district contracts going forward," Davey said. "We want people to be clear as what kinds of things are unacceptable."
Davey said the guidelines will also suggest how pay should be set, based on the size and location of a school district. She said the guidelines will be introduced within the next two weeks.
"We're going to say that the salary should be similar to districts of comparable size in the region," Davey said. "Recognizing that the cost of living in the northern part of the state may be higher than the southern part."
As a percentage, those making more than $200,000 a year is a fraction of the 142,000 public school employees and the annual $9.2 billion payroll.
But, it shows a trend of how top school salaries have exceeded the rate of inflation and have surpassed the $175,000 set for the governor's salary.
At the top of the 200 Club is Newark Schools Superintendent Marion Bolden with an annual salary of $250,700. Her pay has remained static since 2005.
Teachers are well below the $200,000 threshold. The median teacher salary is $56,500, and the median for administrators is $108,900.
While there are few members of the new $200,000 club in Central Jersey, a number of superintendents had salaries in 2007 hovering close to that threshold:
- Franklin (Somerset) Superintendent Edward Q. Seto's salary was $195,000;Plainfield's incoming Superintendent Steve Gallon III, expected to start with the district on July 1, was to be paid about $198,000 before Union County Superintendent Carmen M. Centuolo rejected his contract amid ""questionable provisions'' related to payment for travel, meals and lodging, relocation expenses, life insurance and sick leave, officials said last month. The rejection came amid a state review of superintendent contracts in the 31 Abbott districts, which have received higher amounts of state funding.
- Somerville Superintendent Carolyn F. Leary's salary was $190,948;
- North Plainfield Superintendent Marilyn E. Birnbaum's salary was $190,478;
- North Hunterdon Superintendent Charles Shaddow's 2007 salary was $190,351;
- Piscataway Superintendent Robert L. Copeland's salary in 2007 was $189,639;
- Bernards schools Superintendent Valerie A. Goger's salary was $188,100;
- Somerset Hills Regional Superintendent Peter J. Miller's salary was $187,488.
Plainfield school board president Bridget Rivers said at the time that concerns about Gallon's contract had to do with a need to clarify language. Gallon's contract was being amended to make it more palatable to Centuolo.
"There was no indication that any of the recommended changes were viewed as unreasonable, unconscionable or in any way in direct violation of the law,'' Rivers had said in a statement after Gallon's contract was rejected.
In Middlesex County, most chief school administrators are paid between $150,000 and $190,000. Some are paid less. No personnel below administrator come close, according to the new public school salary data just released.
In Middlesex, only New Brunswick's superintendent, Richard Kaplan, makes more than $200,000, according to the data. He earns $204,725 and has 35 years of experience and a master's degree.
Monroe Township's Ralph Ferrie, who has 31 years of experience and a doctorate, makes $195,734 as the district superintendent, according to the data. He is one of a few in Middlesex County who earn more than $190,000.
Also in the $190,000 group are Mark J. Finkelstein, chief school administrator for the Middlesex Regional Educational Services Commission, and Perth Amboy's John Rodecker, who with 36 years experience and a master's degree, earns $196,245 as superintendent, according to the data.
Elsewhere, there are two superintendents each in Ocean and Monmouth counties paid more than $200,000 a year.
Long Branch Superintendent Joseph M. Ferraina, 58, is paid a base of $222,436 this school year, while Freehold Regional High School District Superintendent H. James Wasser, 58, salary is set at $204,500.
In Ocean County, Toms River Regional Schools Superintendent Michael J. Ritacco, 60, is paid $225,000 and Barnegat Township School Superintendent Thomas C. McMahon, 46, has a $227,108 salary, that includes payment to be the district's business administrator. As a superintendent alone, McMahon is paid $183,908.
Ferraina, who has 36 years of public school experience, acknowledges that school salaries are rising, but said that school officials' pay should also be evaluated on the value and savings they provide for a school district.
Ferraina, who said he agreed to take a roughly 2.3 percent cost of living increase rather than a fixed percent salary raise for the past two school years, said the superintendent post is a high-stress job where an individual's pay should be based upon the results they produce.
Ferraina said he saved the Long Branch School District nearly $1 million a year with a new transportation contract.
"I save millions of dollars for the (school) district every year - come up with plans," Ferraina said. "It like you get a (NY Yankees baseball player) Alex Rodriguez, he's get paid more money that somebody else, but at the same time he's supposed deliver runs and do certain things."
However, Ferraina conceded that the salary well, at a certain point, can run dry.
"Anything that involves an incredible amount of stress and an incredible amount of demand, requires a certain salary," Ferraina said. "On the other hand, people may say, "when is it enough?"'
Experience, the number of responsibilities and the size of the school district should all be taken into account when comparing one school superintendent's salary to another, said Betty Vasil, president of the Toms River school board.
Vasil said her district is the fourth largest in the state yet it has the sixth lowest cost for administration.
"We have more than $200 million budget and nearly 18,000 students," Vasil said. "(Ritacco) is paid about $12 per student," or $225,000 this year.
Ritacco, who was attending the Toms River middle schools graduations ceremonies Friday, was not available for comment.
McMahon is paid $227,108, which includes payments to be the district's business administrator, but his annual salary will be reduced to $189,000 in September when a new business administrator is hired, he said.
"Now that we are a K through 12 district no way I can do both (jobs)," McMahon said.
Annual pay raises for teachers and administrators will probably not break the bank for state or local taxpayers, McMahon said.
McMahon said the state's plans for regionalization and increasing shared services are the best way save taxpayers money.
State Assemblyman Joseph Malone, R-Burlington, said the first priority in slowing the state's growing salary bubble is to stop school systems from signing off on what he called "these egregious salary packages."
"I can't tell you somebody should be making a $160,000 or, $180,000 or $200,000," said Malone, a former educator. "Do we need to slow the growth of school salaries down? We do."
Malone said that "given that taxpayers can no longer afford it, they (superintendents and administrators) ought to be given raises no more than the teachers and support staff are getting."
Malone noted that there may be some people going into education for the wrong reason.
"People are losing sight of what they're there for," Malone said. "If it's just for a salary, then we're going to continue to have problems."
However Education Commissioner Davey said ultimately, the onus of managing educators' salaries falls on the local school districts' shoulders.
"At the end of the day, this is a local (school) board that is doing the negotiating," Davey said. "The folks in charge in the district need to be responsible for that negotiating, because we're certainly sitting there at the negotiations table with them."
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Jim McConville: (732) 888-2632; email@example.com