School Administrators Perks and parachutes

Posted: September 15, 2008

New Jersey's school administrators came up with a regrettable response to the recent uproar over their compensation packages. They asserted an unlimited right to perks and payouts, filing a pair of lawsuits against the state officials attempting to limit them.

An initial ruling on one of the suits last week should encourage the administrators to reconsider their stance. U.S. District Judge Joel A. Pisano, sitting in Trenton, found that the state has a "perfectly legitimate interest" in imposing oversight and transparency on the compensation of school administrators. He urged the administrators to come to an accommodation with the state.

If anything, New Jersey has been too slow to scrutinize salaries, bonuses and other spending in its more than 600 school districts - most of which range from tiny to small. But Gov. Corzine and the Legislature have grown much more serious about the task - especially after news of a scandalous $740,000 retirement package for a superintendent in the Monmouth County town of Keansburg, classified as one of the state's neediest districts.

In the Keansburg case, the state has sued to stop the bulk of the severance payout. Such attempts to undo contracts after the fact, however, are legally and practically awkward. Administrators do have rights under their contracts and, as the judge noted Wednesday, under the state's tenure laws.

More promising and appropriate are New Jersey's efforts to monitor contracts more carefully and put some reasonable limits on them in the future. The new Department of Education regulations targeted by the lawsuits allow state officials to review school districts' contracts with top administrators and overrule any excessive provisions.

Trenton also has started to release more information on administrators' compensation and severance packages throughout the state. The latest data show many districts have a tendency to be too generous with the taxpayers' money.

School boards often boost administrative salaries with a host of unusual perks. Then they bestow six-figure, lump-sum payments on their executives upon retirement. Ridiculously, these exit bonuses can include substantial compensation for "unused" sick days, a concept foreign to most workplaces. A severance package for a superintendent in Medford totaled more than a quarter-million dollars.

Skilled school administrators deserve good salaries. But there's no good reason for school boards to tack on extraordinary perks and golden parachutes. Administrators who continue to assert an inviolable right to that kind of enrichment care more about wealth than education.

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