Report: Controls needed on pay of N.J. county college presidents

Posted: May 31, 2012

New Jersey’s two-year public colleges need to rein in their practice of wooing their presidents with high salaries and benefits including unchecked expense accounts, free housing, and country-club memberships, State Comptroller A. Matthew Boxer said in a report released Wednesday.

"There are no state standards or guidelines for college trustees to rely on when setting compensation terms for their president," Boxer said in a statement. "As a result, there are huge disparities."

The state’s 19 community and county colleges, which aim to provide an affordable education to almost 260,000 students annually, offer compensation packages free of constraints placed on other government agencies and often without regard to factors such as the administrator’s experience or the school’s size, according to Boxer’s analysis.

The report took colleges across the state to task. Investigators found presidents whose colleges provided retirement fund contributions more than 14 times what was required by the state and who received perks such as an $11,000 country club membership and the use of a school-owned luxury SUV. Covered expenses included a $460 steak house dinner for three in Montreal and annual credit card bills of up to $45,000.

Compensation packages in 2010 ranged from $165,721 (Cumberland County College, where the package was for 10 months) to $441,100 (Union County College). Robert Messina Jr., the former president of Burlington County College — one of three colleges selected for deeper review by investigators — submitted $9,700 in travel expenses that year, the highest among the college presidents, and received total compensation of almost $250,000.

Camden County College’s president received total compensation of $217,886. The president of Gloucester County College received $214,392.

In comparison with their colleagues at other institutes of higher learning, salaries for county college presidents are modest, said Jake Farbman, spokesman for the New Jersey Council of Community Colleges. The new president of Rutgers University was recently hired for a  reported $650,000 salary plus a performance bonus, car and house.

The compensation for a community college president is much less than a four-year school and quite frankly we serve many more students collectively in the state of New Jersey,” Farbman said.

Burlington County College did not return a phone call for comment.

Though they collect tuition from students, county colleges rely on government aid, grants, and state and federal contracts for more than half their revenue, according to Boxer’s report.

Boxer’s inquiry into college presidents’ pay followed the resignation of two of the top administrators last year for alleged improper oversight of their schools’ finances. One of them, Gloucester County College president Russell A. Davis, was charged with 11 counts of forging another official’s name to an application to get his pension funds early. The case is pending, according to the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office.

The state’s heightened vigilance regarding public workers’ compensation and benefits is a welcome change, Jerry Cantrell, of the New Jersey Taxpayers Alliance, said Wednesday.

"In the past there’s been an attempt to shy away from these issues. But Gov. Christie and Sen. [Stephen] Sweeney," the chamber’s president, "have taken lead positions on this, and there’s been bipartisan support," he said.

Boxer has recommended the Department of Higher Education establish compensation guidelines for county colleges, force presidents to submit itemized receipts for all their expenses, and do away with bonuses unless attached to a specific "performance criteria."

"We’re not suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach, but it’s appropriate to set boundaries when schools are spending taxpayer dollars," he said.

Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @osborneja. Inquirer staff writer Rita Giordano contributed to this article.


To view the report on compensation of N.J. county college presidents, go to www.philly.com/collegeprez.

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