SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – The South Plainfield Board of Education (SPBOE), at a meeting Feb. 19, approved a new employment contract for the district’s current head administrator.
At this time, the SPBOE voted 6-0 to rescind Dr. Noreen Lishak's current contract, which runs from July 1, 2017, through June 30, 2022, and replace it with a new five-year contract, effective July 1, 2020, through June 30, 2025.
While Lishak, who came to South Plainfield in 2016, is getting a new contract, she is not getting a raise; her initial contract, along with this new one, calls for a two-percent increase annually. For 2020-2021, Lishak will receive an annual salary of $200,515 with a two-percent increase each year through 2024-2025.
“To get a high-quality superintendent locked in for a five-year contract with what I consider a nominal pay increase on an annual basis – less than the cost of living – made a lot of sense,” said SPBOE President Doug Chapman.
In each year of this contract, the superintendent will be eligible to receive a merit bonus - up to 15-percent of her base salary - based upon achievement of up to three qualitative merit criteria – each worth 3.3 percent – and up to two qualitative merit criteria – each worth 2.5-percent; the merits – or goals – are established by the board and are not added to Lishak’s base salary for computation of the following year’s salary.
Additionally, as part of her new contract, Lishak's health insurance will change to be the same as that offered to members of the SPEA.
Back in 2011, former Gov. Chris Christie implemented a $175,000 cap on public school superintendent salaries and, in 2017, the administration raised the cap to slightly over $191,500; superintendents subject to the cap were also eligible for extra pay if they had a high school in their district, remained for multiple contracts, or met goals for merit pay.
With the cap in effect, many districts were left without a superintendent as those who previously held the position did not wish to take a pay decrease while others found it difficult to hire one due to the salary restrictions.
In July 2019, however, Gov. Phil Murphy lifted the cap, but added in new restrictions to limit perks and prohibit districts from compensating their superintendent for things like taxes or pension and health insurance contributions. Elimination of the cap resulted in many districts throughout the state rewriting contracts in an effort to retain their top administrator.
“This contact made sense on many fronts. First, to try to ensure leadership stability for our district, which previously had leadership instability for a very long time; second, to continue to build the district with vision and purpose; and third, to be fiscally responsible,” Chapman told TAPinto South Plainfield, adding, “Superintendent salary cap restrictions were removed last year and salaries will probably accelerate way faster than two-percent agreed to in this contract.”
Prior to voting on the proposed contract, the board welcomed public comment, with just four residents taking to the podium.
Chere Glover, a former SPBOE member who was part of the search committee that brought Lishak to the district, spoke in support of the new contract, stating that the superintendent, along with her administrative team, has enabled South Plainfield to move out of ‘stagnation’ and shown that she is ‘dedicated to providing the best for students, staff and community.’
“I know some are concerned about the salary, however, it’s commensurate with the size of the school district and with what is happening around New Jersey. I do not believe we are overpaying for a high-quality professional. This is a 24-hour a day job; she has nine people that she has to answer to with over 3,300 students and 450-plus staff to manage,” said Glover.
“We all know that it is common knowledge that many CEO’s around the United States make a lot more; why wouldn’t we pay our top school CEO a fair salary for our most precious gifts, our children? We need to keep our district in tack administratively and not turn back the hands of time with the instability and uncertainty that we saw in the past,” added Glover.
Resident Bogdan Fryszczyn, however, disagrees, telling the SPBOE he doesn’t think the superintendent’s annual pay should exceed the $160,000 salary those who work for NASA are paid. He pointed out that NASA scientists are trained ‘for life and death’ situations and must be ‘prepared for anything that can happen.’
Additionally, Fryszczyn questioned the merit bonuses in Lishak’s contract. “I am told salary is for doing a good job; what are bonuses for?” he asked the board.
According to Chapman, merit bonus, which are awarded for accomplishing certain objectives, are ‘standard in superintendent contracts throughout the county and in New Jersey.’
“What are these additional goals? […Are] they not for what is in her job description?” Fryszczyn asked. “Is the superintendent working 20 hours a day?”
“The superintendent job…is a 24/7 job. She is on call all the time… so to answer your question is she working 20 hours a day, yes,” said Chapman.
While resident Stephen Danyo told the board he would like to see property taxes go down, he feels Lishak has done a ‘good job’ and that her ‘salary is comparable’ to that of a person who runs a comparative budget in the private industry and who ‘deals with the problems she does.’ “I think she has done a very good job and should be commended…” said Danyo.
Resident Lisa Manz also took to the podium to question the merit bonuses in the new contract and whether Lishak herself or someone else in the district under her would be fulfilling those goals.
“Like any other organization, overseeing that the accomplishment of the goals takes place is [Dr. Lishak’s] responsibility,” said Chapman.
Manz also questioned the health insurance plan Lishak will be receiving and the cost to the district ‘on top of the two-percent [raises] and on top of the merit [bonuses].’
Chapman stated that the superintendent is not part of a ‘bargaining unit’ like the principals and, therefore, the board can add her into the pool of insured under one of the bargaining unit plans. Doing this, he said, will enable the district to take advantage of large pool pricing and make it more economical than purchasing a private policy.
Lishak, said the board president, saved the district in excess of $85,000 over the past four years by not initially using the coverages agreed to in her current contract. "The differential to the district will be roughly $3,400 a year, and we felt as though that was reasonable," said Chapman.
“And we have to foot the bill for that?” asked Manz.
“That’s how the public school system works, yes,” said Chapman.
The nine-member South Plainfield Board of Education voted 6-0 in favor of the contract with the three conflicted members – Keith Both, Debbie Boyle, and Tom Cassio abstaining due to conflict (all three have family members who work for the district and therefore cannot vote).
According to SPBOE Pio Pennisi, a lifelong resident and former superintendent in Dunellen who has served numerous non-consecutive terms on the board, Lishak is ‘probably only the third superintendent’ to return for more than one term over the last 20-plus years.
“We’ve seen the benefits of having a good superintendent stay,” said Pennisi, adding, “The contract is fair. It’s fair to the board. It’s fair to Dr. Lishak.”
“The person who leads the school district pulls all the strings on how the district operates; they set the tone, they are the voice for the district, they clarify for the public what is happening in the schools… The superintendent makes it possible for all the other people in the district to do their job and do it well,” added SPBOE member John Farinella, who also serves as a principal in Rahway. “This is a very complicated organization; it is a very, very significant part of our community and impacts every aspect of everyone’s life…for better or for worse.”
“[As a member of] the team that hired Dr. Lishak, I think she has brought a lot of stability to the district, not only in her own personal commitment but with the other administrators she has brought into the district,” said SPBOE member Bill Seesselberg. “In the years we have had Dr. Lishak there have been a lot of positive, visible improvements as well as academic and extracurricular and other achievements...that I don’t think would have happened. I support her staying here another five years at least.”
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