Wednesday, December 03, 2008
BY JOHN MOONEY
A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by New Jersey’s school administrators that sought to block new state limits on their employment contracts, ruling that the regulations are in the state’s “perfectly legitimate” interests.
But the decision by U.S. District Judge Joel Pisano appeared to leave at least some of the limits open to challenge in state court, and a lawyer representing administrators said a challenge likely would be filed within the week.
In August, the New Jersey Association of School Administrators filed suit against state Education Commissioner Lucille Davy and others to stop new regulations that gave the state unprecedented powers to review and prohibit pay and other compensation that it found excessive.
The regulations were based on a law enacted earlier in the year after public outcry over some administrators’ contracts that included six-digit severance and other payments. The most extreme was a $740,000 package last summer to outgoing Keansburg schools chief Barbara Trzeszkowski.
Executive county superintendents have since been busy reviewing the contracts, with some saying they have sent back a majority of them with at least small fixes.
But the administrators’ group contended the new regulations arbitrarily singled out superintendents, assistant superintendents and business administrators, and they in turn could lose compensation under the new system without their constitutional right to due process.
Pisano initially asked the parties to negotiate a settlement, but, failing that, he largely appeared to support the state’s position in his 18-page ruling filed Nov. 25.
“Injunctive relief would have a dramatic, negative effect on the state,” Pisano wrote in the ruling. “Any further delay in reviewing new contracts according to the regulations would interfere with the state’s legitimate legislative goal of property tax and public school funding reform.”
The ruling drew praise from Gov. Jon Corzine and legislative leaders.
“New Jersey property taxpayers are long tired of learning after-the-fact their tax dollars meant for helping children in the classroom are instead padding administrative contracts and lavish retirement payouts,” read a statement from state Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden).
Still, Pisano only ruled on the injunction and abstained on the merits of the case itself, leaving it to state courts. And the opening was immediately seized upon by the lawyer for the administrators association, Stephen Edelstein.
Edelstein cited a footnote in the decision that found the specific statutes limiting accumulated sick and vacation time could not apply to the administrators, with no further explanation.
“That was a very important point to us,” Edelstein said of the footnote. “A regulation cannot derive from an inapplicable statute, and we will next go to state court.”
In the meantime, county superintendents have proceeded with their reviews. Passaic County Superintendent Robert Gilmartin said he has completed reviews of top administrators in his 20 districts and found almost all needed small adjustments, including in mileage and other rates being paid.
In one case, Gilmartin said, he rejected a contract that called for lifetime health benefits for both the superintendent and his or her spouse. In three contracts, he said, he sent back provisions that called for separate life insurance policies.
Overall, he said, the process has been worthwhile, at least so far.
“It has accomplished some consistency across the board and probably slowed down some of the extravagance,” said Gilmartin, himself a former superintendent in West Milford. “Still, time will tell.”
John Mooney may be reached at email@example.com or (973) 392-1548.