TRENTON—Nearly 29 percent of New Jersey school districts – 170 of the 589 school districts and educational services commission tracked by the New Jersey School Boards Association – changed superintendents in 2010-2011, according to an NJSBA report. That was the highest turnover rate in the 10 years that the NJSBA has monitored superintendent employment.
Retirements accounted for 51 percent of the 170 instances when districts changed superintendents last year. In another 21 percent of the cases, the superintendent moved on to another district, and replacing an interim superintendent accounted for 16% of the turnover. Other reasons included superintendents who resigned or died, or a school board agreeing to share superintendents with other districts.
Last year’s 29 percent turnover rate was a spike from the previous year, when 18 percent of New Jersey school districts changed superintendents. The lowest turnover rate over the past decade was in 2006-2007, when only 8 percent of the Garden State’s schools districts changed superintendents.
“It is widely understood that one of the single most important decisions a school board makes is hiring a superintendent,” said Marie S. Bilik, executive director of the school boards association.
“The school board sets the goals and the agenda, but the superintendent is the educational leader who runs the district on a day-to-day basis and is in charge of implementing the board’s goals and objectives,” said Bilik. “It is difficult to achieve the education reform that you want when there’s a revolving door at the main office.”
NJSBA represents all New Jersey school boards, whose members are entirely unpaid and have no personal or financial stake in the matter of superintendent compensation and benefits. Bilik noted that a top priority of the school board is to ensure their community’s schools have the best possible educational leader for the financial resources that are available.
NJSBA, which assists local school boards in searching for superintendents, has tracked the turnover rate since 2001-2002. At that time, more than one in five New Jersey school districts changed superintendents. However, the issue was not specific to New Jersey, as school boards throughout the nation faced obstacles hiring and retaining qualified superintendents – many of whom were already at or near retirement age. In fact, Education Week magazine in 2001 described the high turnover rate among school superintendents as the nation’s “most recent educational crisis.”
The high turnover rate in New Jersey began to abate in the following years. However, recent changes specific to New Jersey contributed to a rapid increase in the state’s superintendent turnover rate.
First, in an effort to rein in the high cost of superintendent salaries, the Christie Administration imposed caps on superintendent salaries. Starting early this year, superintendent contracts are capped at $120,000 for small districts under 250 students, and go to $175,000 for up to 10,000 students. Superintendent salaries for larger school districts with over 10,000 students would be subject to separate rules developed by the state Department of Education. Extra stipends will be awarded in certain circumstances, such as serving as superintendent over two school districts.
However, the salary cap regulations do not provide a stipend in the many instances where a superintendent also served as school principal. Coupled with the salary caps are new requirements that public employees in New Jersey pay a greater share toward their pension and health benefits. NJSBA noted that these factors may have prodded many superintendents who were contemplating retirement to make the move.
“School boards understand the need to control expenses,” said NJSBA’s Bilik. “However, the state also must provide the greatest flexibility at the local level to help school boards attract and retain the best educational leader possible for their district.”
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