I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, November 22, 2014

You Get What You Pay For: @GovChristie's Superintendents Pay Cap Fails

Yet another New Jersey school leader announced this week that he's leaving the state rather than taking a huge, arbitrary pay cut:
James Crisfield, the superintendent of Millburn’s public schools, was among the last class of New Jersey school leaders to seal his contract before Gov. Chris Christie imposed strict salary caps on superintendent pay. 
In the four years since, the caps have been as controversial as anything on Christie’s education agenda, with some saying it gave the system a needed jolt, while others claim it has led to an exodus of talented leaders. 
And now, Crisfield has bolstered the arguments of the latter camp, announcing this week that he taken the superintendent post in the Wissahickon School District in Montgomery County, Pa., near Philadelphia -- in large part due to the salary constraints he faced in New Jersey once his contract expired.[emphasis mine]
Full disclosure: Jim Crisfield hired me for my first permanent job when I moved back to New Jersey years ago. I had several offers, but I took the job, among other reasons, because the pay the district was offering was close to the highest of all my offers.

(Clearly, I don't care enough about children to set aside rational decision making in the interests of my family...)

Jim went to Millburn a few years later, and, while no superintendent can make every stakeholder happy, I heard many good things about his tenure there. So it doesn't surprise me when he says he had planned on staying in Millburn, consistently one of the highest-performing districts in the state:
Q: So, tell me what happened in your decision?
I always thought I’d finish out my career in Millburn. It’s a great district and I can’t think of one any better. But then things happened. I had my pay frozen for the last four years, which I found reasonable given the economic times. But then once my contract expires this coming June, I would have been subject to a 24 percent pay cut, and that just didn’t seem reasonable, not something I thought was fair and certainly not something the local board thought of. But the rules are the rules. 
Does anyone really think this is an unreasonable response? Does anyone really think that public employees don't respond to labor market incentives? Does anyone think, in a kinda-capitalist economic system, that people won't look to move on when one-quarter of their pay is cut?

Christie himself has tried to play down the issue, even as the school leader bleeding continues:
A recent survey by the New Jersey School Boards Association found that 219 out of 561 districts had turnover among superintendents, sometimes more than once, since the cap took effect. 
In 97 cases, districts cited the cap as the reason for the leader's departure. Many headed to jobs in Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York. Some retired.
The governor's spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said the cap will be revisited when it sunsets in 2016. He wouldn't predict whether it might change. 
"Superintendent salary packages had clearly become unjustifiable and in many cases outlandish and had to be reined in," he said in an email. [emphasis mine]
Aside from the cluelessness about basic economics, Drewniak's statement is foolish for its lack of understanding of how pensions work in New Jersey. Because some of the superintendents who left were old enough the start drawing on their pensions:
Some superintendents who get jobs out of state also tap their New Jersey pensions at the same time. That includes 59-year-old Frank Alvarez, who left Montclair two years ago to run the schools in Rye City, N.Y. He said he draws about $123,000 a year from his New Jersey pension, while making $248,500 at his new job. 
"You have many superintendents who retire from New Jersey and begin drawing pensions much earlier than anticipated, rather than continuing to work and contributing into the pension system," Dr. Alvarez said. "It doesn't make sense. This is a failed policy on many levels and the damage will take years to reverse."
Amen: the cap is driving qualified, experienced school leaders away from New Jersey, and it's putting an early and unnecessary load on pensions.

But let's also acknowledge a third, perhaps even more important effect of the cap:
Michael Osnato, who runs a Westwood, N.J., superintendent search firm, Leadership Advantage, said the cap has cut the number of applicants for vacancies, and many candidates are younger than before. 
Dr. Osnato said many principals and assistant principals no longer aspire to be superintendents in New Jersey because they already earn more than the cap allows. They don't face such limits, and some make more than their bosses.
"It really has changed the dynamic," Dr. Osnato said.
Think about it: if you can make more by staying in a principal's job, why would you ever consider becoming a superintendent? And if talented, experienced school administrators won't consider becoming district leaders, what is going to happen to the quality of the applicant pool for superintendent jobs?

Chris Christie has imperiled the future of New Jersey's schools by imposing his superintendent pay cap on local districts, jeopardizing the quality of new applicants for leadership positions.

Don't believe me? Let's look at an example -- the one that started it all.

Back in 2010, Chris Christie was facing the wrath of his suburban base when he cut state aid to schools, resulting in big program cuts in both urban and suburban districts. He tried to blame the cuts on "greedy" teachers and demanded they take a pay freeze; the state's Office of Legislative Services later showed, however, that the freeze would have done little to make up the difference.

But the truth never matters much to Christie -- especially when it comes to education policy. Rather than admit his failure to renew the millionaires tax would have done much more to help fund state aid than any teacher pay freeze, he continued to insist that runway school spending was the culprit.

Unfortunately for Christie, he couldn't just unilaterally slash teacher compensation. So he went after the one school job where he could slash pay: superintendents. And, as usual, he made up a villain who would suit his needs:
The New Jersey school district singled out by Gov. Chris Christie for its “greed and arrogance” is fighting back.
Instead of rescinding the superintendent’s contract as ordered by the governor, the Parsippany-Troy Hills school board on Tuesday pushed for official approval for a five-year contract worth an average yearly salary of more than $225,000 — or $50,000 a year more than what would be allowed under Christie’s salary cap, set to take effect in February.
Last week Christie made Seitz his new “poster boy” for “greed and arrogance” during a town hall-style appearance in which he accused the superintendent of trying to flout new pay rules. Christie even publicized a video showing his denunciation of Seitz on his gubernatorial Twitter account.
“I suspect that the executive county superintendent is going to look very poorly upon someone who is trying to game the system and take from the taxpayers of Parsippany — and by extension, the taxpayers of the state of New Jersey,” Christie said. “If Lee Seitz wants to try to put his greed and his arrogance ahead of the taxpayers of New Jersey, you elected me to stand up to people like Lee Seitz and others across the state, and I will.” [emphasis mine]
Remember: this was back in 2010, long before we had seen the full extent of Chris Christie's hypocrisy. The gullible folks who populated Christie's phony "town halls" and called up to vent on talk radio loved the idea wagging their fingers at allegedly rapacious school leaders gobbling up their hard-earned tax dollars.

Only later would they learn that Christie would suspend his own rules if it meant getting his favored neophyte superintendents into state-run districts. The always excellent Deciminyan over at Blue Jersey detailed just how hypocritical the Governor could be on this point:
Here’s a comparison of Seitz and Rouhanifard: 

Relevant Experience
School Principal – 7 years
Asst. Superintendent – 1.5 years
Superintendent – 18 years
President – Hunterdon County Association of School Administrators – 4 years
Teacher – 2 years
Superintendent of Schools – NJ and PA
Secondary Principal – NJ and PA
Two year provisional granted immediately.
Child Assault Prevention Administrator of the Year
Star School – NJ DoE
National Blue Ribbon School – US DoE

Doctor of Eduation – Penn
Master of Education - Lehigh
Economics and Political Science - UNC – Chapel Hill 
Field as specified on LinkedIn Profile
Education Management
Investment Management

Yes, Paymon Rouhanifard, who doesn't even have a superintendent's certification or any advanced degrees, was hired by Chris Christie at a salary nearly as high as the "poster boy for greed and arrogance."

But what happened to Seitz? Well, after a period of general nastiness, Seitz left Parsippany and retired -- but not before paying a financial penalty, despite the well-wishes of his board. Parsippany hired an interim superintendent, and began a search for Seitz's replacement. Eventually, they settled on a fellow named Scott Rixford:
Rixford, a graduate of the University of Miami with a master's degree from Rutgers in education/educational leadership, has more than 18 years of experience in education. He has been an elementary and middle school teacher, principal, district level supervisor, and assistant superintendent in the Paterson School District and superintendent of the Woodland Park School District. 
Additionally, he was the executive director of the New Jersey Department of Education's Regional Achievement Centers. It is his wide range of education-related work experience that Rixford believes will enable him to ensure that "every layer" of the Parsippany district will have the necessary tools and resources.
The RACs are former NJDOE Commissioner Chris Cerf's brainchild, and have produced some notable flops in school leadership. When the district that would be under Rixford's watch while he ran the RAC heard he would be overseeing their operations, the reaction was decidedly mixed:
Scott Rixford, who had been principal of Alexander Hamilton Academy and an assistant Paterson superintendent, was named executive director of the state education department’s Regional Achievement Center (RAC) covering Passaic, Bergen, Sussex and Warren counties.
The Christie administration this year created six RACs in different parts of the state in a controversial effort to reform New Jersey’s worst school as well as those that have low graduation rates or other problems. Under the plan, the so-called “Priority” schools face state-mandated closure or private takeover if they do not improve in three years.
Rixford’s appointment drew mixed reaction among city education officials and advocates.
“Why are these retreads being brought back?’’ said school board member Errol Kerr. “He never came off as one of the people that you would entrust the district to to make better. He did not distinguish himself when he was here.’’
“We’re not too happy about this,’’ said Board of Education President Christopher Irving.
But former board president, Willa Mae Taylor, had good things to say about Rixford. “He did a good job at Alexander Hamilton,’’ she said. “”He was a quick thinker and a quick mover.’’
The district’s security director, James Smith, said Rixford brought to his attention allegations of a Paterson teacher who was “stealing time” from her duties tutoring a handicapped student. The case proved true, Smith said.  “I found him to be an effective principal and an effective assistant superintendent,’’ Smith said of Rixford.
The president of the Paterson Education Fund (PEF), an advocacy group, said she was very concerned about Rixford’s new role. “Scott Rixford has a history with the district and I’m concerned about his ability to be disinterested,’’ said Irene Sterling of PEF. She added that Rixford was “very ambitious” and indicated that might affect his “impartiality.’’
And Rixford has had some other bumps in his career:
WOODLAND PARK: A state examiner has found that Schools Superintendent Scott Rixford retaliated against district employees whose union filed grievances against him and wouldn't agree to his plans to change employee negotiations and working conditions.
Rixford on Wednesday denied he retaliated against district staff and said he was a union member and representative of the New Jersey Education Association for many years.
“I certainly don't have any union animus,” he said.
In a 75-page report released March 31, Wendy L. Young, a hearing examiner for the state Public Employment Relations Commission, wrote that the Board of Education violated the New Jersey Employer-Employee Relations Act through Rixford's actions.
“I think the decision speaks volumes,” said Cassandra Lazzara, president of the West Paterson Education Association, the union that represents teachers, secretaries, custodians and librarians. “There was no reason for them to go after us the way they did.”
OK, that's not good... but everyone's entitled to make mistakes, there's two sides to every story, and I wouldn't suggest that anyone should have a spotless record before they are hired for any job. The Parsippany board must have thought these incidents didn't disqualify Rixford from the position... especially when compared to the other applicants for the job.

Again, according to the recruiter in the story above, "... the cap has cut the number of applicants for vacancies, and many candidates are younger than before." Rixford was only going to get $175,000 per year, a big drop from Seitz's previous salary. We're left to wonder: what might the pool of candidates have looked like for the Parsippany superintendent's job before Christie had imposed his cap?

We'll never know, but we can ask this: how's the new superintendent working out, Parsippany?
The Parsippany-Troy Hills Education Association (PTHEA) confronted Schools Superintendent Scott Rixford Thursday night on an array of issues, including adequate time to meet state mandates, an impervious administrative culture, and acceptable styles of corduroy pants under a new dress code.
The meeting ended with the superintendent announcing initiatives that effectively bypass the PTHEA, some 100 disgruntled teachers filing out, and both sides still at loggerheads. [emphasis mine]
Wait right there. "Corduroy pants"?
Adding to the overall discontent is a new no-jeans dress code that was implemented by the administration, according to [Parsippany-Troy Hills Education Association President Joe] Kyle, who said lots of teachers bought corduroy pants since they comply with the code.
"But they've asked some teachers to lift our shirts up to see if our corduroys have a certain pocket design which they're defining as jean pocket design," Kyle said. "We're asking for time to learn technology to teach our kids and they have building principals looking to see if we have a rivet on our pants, which they define as jean rivets.
"I wouldn't be able to make this up," he said. "This is akin to Nero fiddling while Rome burns."
I think we can all agree that our children have been falling behind Shanghai's students largely because of their teachers' pocket designs...

Well, maybe this is just a little misunderstanding. What else is bothering Parsippany's teachers?
What bothers the teachers, according to Kyle, are what the union calls weak policies that take away from teaching as well as the indifferent or hostile tone with which the administration responds to teachers when they raise concerns.
"Things have been building up for three years," Kyle said. "We've been asking for a slowdown. We've gotten some really good things like iPads and Smart Boards. We just want time to be able to figure them out and teach more in the classroom.
"But the new administration, along with the new assistant superintendent of curriculum, just keeps adding on new stuff."
Per an administrative directive, he said, teachers must give quarterly instead of final exams, which means they're writing the extra tests on professional development days. Elementary school teachers, who need better training on a new literacy program, have been told to train during their lunch periods.
Further, all teachers must now develop state-mandated Student Growth Objectives (SGO) for groups of students and then test them at year's end. The test, Kyle said, is a way to evaluate teachers' performance.
"Instead of giving us time to do these things, the administration tells us, 'Do it on your own time,'" Kyle said. "Very few of them have experience in the classroom. We do. We know what's best for the students. What we say, though, is met by condescension and derision. We were told the other day by one of the assistant superintendents, 'If your teachers were more qualified, maybe you wouldn't need all this time.'
"So it's this attitude," he added, "that just really has to stop."
Does any of this sound familiar? Contempt for the professionalism of teachers? Disregard for collective bargain rights? Focus on inconsequential nonsense? Where, oh where, could this attitude be coming from?

Chris Christie: “If Lee Seitz wants to try to put his greed and his arrogance ahead of the taxpayers of New Jersey, you elected me to stand up to people like Lee Seitz and others across the state and I will.”
Rixford, for his part, thinks the problem lies with his local union:
In a 20-minute statement, Rixford referenced that the "high-level and high-profile drama" of the PTHEA are really about setting "a tone for this current negotiation year."
He said he chooses to differentiate between "teachers in the classroom" and the PTHEA leadership. In reference to the union's strategies, the superintendent said he prefers an President Abraham Lincoln quote: "A house divided against itself cannot stand."
Again: where have we heard this before? That teachers are so gullible that they are being manipulated by their elected union representatives?

Chris Christie: “I don’t think teachers are the problem. I think unions are the problem.”*
But, of course, when enforcing ridiculous policies, it's never the fault of the enforcer, is it?
Rixford said he understands all the new stressors that make teaching harder and noted PTHEA literature in which it is written, "We're struggling to teach a curriculum with increasingly high standards."
"Yes, we are. All of us are," the superintendent said. "And yet the Association has to date expended its energy on planning a dress code challenge day and the huge effort of organizing this evening's rally."
"We find it unfortunate the association has opted for a house divided," Rixford said at the end of his statement. "We remind you that your administration will continue to operate this district as a big tent."
He finished his speech to silence. No one clapped.
Some PTHEA members called Rixford's speech insincere and a manipulation of facts. Kyle said he plans on asking for a full 20 minutes to address the board, too.
Sounds like a great place to work, doesn't it?

Look, I won't pretend we haven't had really awful superintendents in the past when there wasn't a pay cap. But Parsippany is a case that should be considered when debating its effects. No superintendent is perfect, but Lee Seitz at least had the respect of his teachers:
Still Seitz was praised by union representatives and most Board members for all he has accomplished. Judy Mayer, who heads the teachers’ union, and Susan Raymond, representing the secretaries’ union, thanked him for the many initiatives he undertook and for always respecting the staff.
That stands in stark contrast to Scott Rixford, whose RAC tenure links him directly to the Christie administration:
"You see, it’s not just the policies, or the lack of awareness on how those policies are affecting teaching, or their lack of empathy at what we’re going through that is hurting this district;" the letter from the executive board said "It’s the smug, superior attitude that we should learn our place, it’s the disrespectful insinuation that our elementary teachers are somehow ineffective and unqualified because they ask for assistance, and it’s the arrogant refusal to listen to any suggestions on educational policy that counter their own, even the state’s." [emphasis mine]
Again: there's no guarantee that removing the pay cap will always ensure New Jersey's schools have great superintendents.

But it amazes me that "conservatives" like Chris Christie think they can ignore labor markets and impose arbitrary pay caps and that somehow the quality of candidates for school leadership jobs won't suffer.

Parsippany is a cautionary tale: you need to pay people well if you want the best. Don't be surprised, New Jersey, when more school leaders like Jim Crisfield leave and more candidates like Scott Rixford take their places.

I know rescinding the cap will not be good for Chris Christie's impending presidential campaign. But I'm asking Republicans of good will (like Assemblyman David Wolfe) to work with him to find a way to get rid of this terrible policy while saving face, if that's what's required.

We simply can't afford to wait until the cap expires to restore sanity to our state's education policies.


* I've said this before, but I think it bears repeating: does anyone else hear a distinctively misogynist  tone in Christie's idea that teachers unions are duping their members?
He "feels badly" for teachers; the poor dears can't see they're being suckered. No wonder he reminds me of Ralph Kramden, patronizingly patting Alice on the head as he tells her what's best for her. Alice, of course, was ten times as smart as Ralph, and could see through his hair-brained schemes the minute they were hatched. In the same way, teachers know that Christie is completely full of it: he cuts teacher pay, slashes benefits, pushes to eliminate workplace protections, and personally insults teachers (he can't help himself).
Yet he condescendingly claims it's the unions that are the source for teachers' current woes. It's telling that he never pulls this crap with the police unions, or the firefighters, or even the CWA; he's only gone to war with the NJEA. Why is that, do you suppose?
That's back from 2012, and I think it's just as relevant today. Women make up around three-quarters of the teaching corps. The War on Teachers has always been an extension of the War On Women.

Tell me I'm wrong. 

ADDING: I see Bruce Baker has been hanging out on the message boards:
 have a possible to the salary cap problem. One that can be drawn from lessons from CMO (Charter Management Organization) operated charter schools. CMOs like Uncommon Schools in particular (KIPP/TEAM fails to report their compensation data on their IRS 990s) have "administrators" paid above the NJ district admin cap level (over $200k), including middle level operational managers assigned specifically to NJ charters. These individuals appear on IRS filings as compensated by the non-profit CMO, but do not appear as NJ district employees in the state personnel data files (as do superintendents, etc.), despite the fact that their salaries are largely supported by the public expense of the management fees (and yes, plenty of additional philanthropy). 

So, what's the lesson here? New Jersey superintendents simply need to form a "non-profit" district management company, like a charter CMO. They can then convince local boards of education to not hire a superintendent and instead, contract that management company, paying an annual management fee (as do charters) to the management company (let's call it a DMO - district management organization).

Under the umbrella of the DMO, the managers assigned to oversee individual districts could be paid whatever rate the DMO board of directors (private citizens, not public officials) sets, assuming it collects high enough management fees, which it could with local school board approvals, as a contracted service. These assigned district managers would no longer be district employees. They would be DMO employees. Their compensation could certainly be (unofficially) agreed upon by individual local boards of education, but the officially approved expense would be the management fee to the DMO, not the salary of the DMO assigned manager (uh... superintendent).

Now, this will add some expense - the overhead of the DMO - as it does in charters (most charter to district spending comparisons totally miss the redundant additional layers of charter management expense which are kept on a separate set of books and may not be fully covered by the management fees).

This approach would have the added benefit for superintendents and their DMO of shielding many of their activities and finances from public disclosure (as it does in privately governed/operated charters).

So indeed there are some lessons to be learned from the charter sector!

[Yes, this is a sarcastic proposal, but indeed the cap is arbitrary, and deeply problematic. see: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/new-jersey-superintendent-salaries-in-context/]

1 comment:

John Hyman said...

While I detest this cap policy (it's hardly a function of a free market, now is it?) I am shocked at the attention these superintendents are getting. 24% cut off of $200K+ salary is one thing; the 30% cut our TA's and special needs assistants had to accept (along with the loss of all benefits) was catastrophic on the special needs programs.