Paging Norman Rockwell

The papers and local radio stations are splattered with stories today on some new data issued by the State regarding retirement packages for school superintendents. It’s practically a Jackson Pollock painting out there, from the Star-Ledger from to the Courier-Post to the Press of Atlantic City to the North Jersey Record.

Here’s the Star-Ledger’s lede:

More than 30 New Jersey school administrators could be due six-figure retirement packages at a time the state is trying to rein in administrative costs, according to data the state released Wednesday.

Much of this journalistic eruption stems from an admittedly mind-blowing settlement to a retiring Keansburg superintendent. Keansburg, a small Monmouth County district of 1800 children, is one of the 31 Abbott districts. 81% of the district’s total budget comes in the form of state aid, about $28.9 million. Superintendent Barbara Trzeskowski, a 38 year employee, is awaiting her retirement deal, which comes to a whopping $740,876.

The State’s reaction has been to issue new regulations that limit superintendent compensation and to publish a data base of all superintendent contracts in New Jersey. (Reality check: average retirement payments are slightly over $10K and the typical salary is $108K.)

However, the data is riddled with errors.. The Trenton Times article lists incorrect salaries just for Mercer County, and the Star-Ledger reports that the State’s own monitor in Paterson, Mark Kramer, was listed as due for a $178,750 retirement package on top of his $165,000 yearly salary. Kramer is, in fact, not entitled to any retirement package. When the Star-Ledger challenged the DOE on the accuracy of the numbers, a staffer replied,

This is the first time we have done this and don’t expect it will be 100 percent perfect,” said Kathryn Forsyth, communications director of the state Department of Education.

Here’s a fact: the NJ Department of Education is woefully understaffed and overwhelmed. Ms. Trzeskowski’s contract has been sitting in the DOE office since 2006, so her hefty retirement package is old news, or at least it would be if the State were able to keep up with its paperwork. Unfortunately, the errors embedded in the database are emblematic of the DOE’s inability to oversee NJ’s public school system.

Here’s another example. Kids across the New Jersey took their standardized tests in March. It’s now mid-August, 5 months later. Districts have yet to receive test scores, except for the 11th grade HSPA’s. The NJ Department of Education released the third grade ASK scores a few weeks ago, but pulled them back when districts detected a plethora of errors. Meanwhile, class assignments proceed without assessment information.

Striving for economic efficiency is wonderful. But we’d prefer a little less splatter and whole lot more due diligence.

What do you think?

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