Chatham School Superintendent Jim O’Neill and his fellow plaintiffs have asked for a speedy court date in their lawsuit against the Department of Education, their attorney said. They hope to be in court no later than Feb. 18.
Maria Lepore, chief counsel for the New Jersey Association of School Administrators (NJASA), filed a lawsuit against the DOE on Jan. 13 to block Gov. Chris Christie’s salary cap for school superintendents.
The suit also names Morris County Executive Superintendent Kathleen Serafino and Acting Commissioner of Education Rochelle Hendricks as defendants.
Long Hill Township Superintendent Dr. Rene Rovtar and the New Jersey Association of School Administrators join O’Neill as the plaintiffs.
Christie’s plan for salary caps is determined by district population and allows school districts to pay their top officials no more than $175,000 per year—the same salary the governor makes. Smaller districts would have lower ceilings for superintendent pay. The caps would put O’Neill’s annual salary at $165,000, a pay cut of about 20 percent.
District superintendent contracts typically go to county executive superintendents for review. But on Nov. 15, Hendricks ordered Serafino and other county executive superintendents to hold off on approving any such contracts that exceed the cap—even though the cap does not take effect until Feb. 7.
The suit contends that direction was illegal. "The acting commissioner does not have the authority to tell county executive superintendents not to approve the contracts," said Lepore, chief counsel for the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. "Refusal to approve the contracts is contrary to New Jersey constitutional law."
Lepore said that by implementing the salary caps, the state is trying to “change the regulations by memorandum, which they are not allowed to do.”
With standing contracts approved by their respective school boards but unacknowledged by Serafino, O’Neill and Rovtar both stand to be “adversely affected by the illegal action taken by the acting commissioner,” she said.
“Dr. Rovtar and Mr. O’Neill are not the only superintendents impacted by this,” Lepore said. “There are a lot of superintendents in a lot of different counties and a lot of different actions being filed.”
The suit asks that the court order Serafino to review and approve the contracts for O’Neill and Rovtar according to the regulations that were in effect when the contracts were submitted in December.
As of Thursday afternoon, Lepore had not been notified of a scheduled court date.
Lepore would not specify who was paying for the lawsuit, but she did say that the taxpayers of Chatham and Long Hill were “absolutely not, not in any way, shape or form” responsible for the cost.
“I believe the salary cap is short sighted and ill conceived, and will eventually significantly reduce the quality of the individuals who will aspire to these positions," O'Neill said.
O’Neill said he like to work the three years covered by his board-approved contract. He came into the position in 2003 and has been an employee of the school district since 1996, first as the principal of Chatham High School and then as assistant superintendent.
Currently, he said in a letter to Chatham residents, "our per pupil cost is over $1,000 below the state average and is a cost savings to taxpayers of over $4 million annually or between $500 and $600 for the average home."
He said he was “skeptical [that this issue] will be resolved in time to help my situation by I am hopeful it will help others.”