CHATHAM TOWNSHIP, NJ – In most states across the United States, the superintendent is the most senior administrative position in the school district in which they serve. It’s tantamount to the role of chief executive officer, a position of far reaching power to govern a school system and all of its infrastructure from both a strategic and economic point of view.
So it’s with little surprise that the Chatham Board of Education, and many Chatham residents, have gone out on a limb to protect a leader they believe in – their sitting superintendent James F. O’Neill – despite potential repercussions.
During Monday night’s Board of Education meeting, the Chatham Board of Education voted 6-1-1 to pass a resolution to reaffirm their resolve that O’Neill should not be subject to the recent salary cap regulation initiated by Governor Chris Christie as a cost savings measure against huge state budget shortfalls.
To confirm their resolve, the resolution outlines a new employment contract, effective as soon as it is sanctioned by the executive county superintendent, and would conclude in June 2014.
“To me it strikes directly at the heart of our ability to manage our district as well as the most fundamental rights to manage that are granted to us as a board of education through the legislative elements that are in place today,” said Board President Steve Barna.
In July, Governor Chris Christie proposed a cap on superintendents’ salaries that would limit pay to $175,000 for top officials in districts of less than 10,000 students. The proposal, however, didn’t provide a salary guideline for superintendents of districts with more than 10,000 students, leaving some figures open to negotiation. The Chatham district, which includes Chatham Township and Chatham Borough, has 3,700 students and a per-pupil cost of roughly $7,000, under the state average.
Under current salary levels and with annual increases, O'Neill would receive a base salary of approximately $222,00 by the end of a new three-year contract. The most he could receive under the proposed cap, even with an additional merit increase, is approximately $189,000.
The board, however, has found itself perplexed by principle on the one hand, and the harsh realization of the governor’s commanding authority on the other. Most board members realize it is their duty as elected officials to fight on behalf of the education standards maintained in Chatham, but for the time being, really can’t see a way around economic realities that have spurned a steady stream of statewide educational cuts that began last year.
Although Monday night’s resolution was somewhat more of a formal betrayal of the governor’s edict, the board had contacted the governor, the executive county superintendent, state senators and other elected state officials detailing their position last summer.
It has all fallen on deaf ears.
“We have gotten no indication that I am aware of that there will be consideration of the points we made last summer and the points we are making now,” said board member Alan Routh. “Where is our support from these elected representatives? What is the response? What good is it going to do to send yet another resolution? I think we need to be working on Plan B.”
Chatham residents, represented Monday night by Stacey Ewald from a group she co-founded known as Education Counts, put 320 names to a petition intended for the governor’s office to show support for Mr. O’Neill’s continuance under current pay levels.
“I strongly believe that this should be a local decision that comes from the taxpayers of Chatham and not something that the state can decide for us,” wrote petition signer #240. “On many levels this proposed salary cap is wrong. It continues to foster a negative, argumentative climate in our state.”
O’Neill, for his part, has told media in recent interviews that he would resign, rather than accept the salary cap, a decision that an astonishingly large number of sitting superintendents are making all across the state in reaction to Governor Christie’s proposal.
Meanwhile the defiance continues. “I think we should continue to voice our position until it’s heard,” said board member Richard Connors. “I think eventually we will prevail (in being heard).”
The signs don’t suggest such an opportunity for optimism.
Last month Parsippany Troy-Hills proposed a $216,000 salary for sitting superintendent LeRoy Seitz, which was quickly rejected by the executive county superintendent, and subsequently referred to by Governor Christie as "the definition of greed and arrogance."