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Calls for Ending Superintendents' Tenure Re-Emerge in N.J.

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Growing dissatisfaction with New Jersey's unique law giving tenure to school superintendents has renewed talk in the state of abolishing their job guarantees.

The recent interest expressed by some state lawmakers and the New Jersey School Boards Association in doing away with the protection for superintendents was sparked, in part, by newspaper articles reporting that the head of the Trenton schools is seeking $850,000 before he will agree to step down from his post.

Neither a spokesman for the school district nor the president of the Trenton school board could confirm the reported amount. But six-figure buyouts are not uncommon in the state, and the Newark superintendent received $600,000 several years ago for ceding his position.

The recent publicity about the Trenton situation, in which lawyers for the school board and Superintendent Crosby Copeland Jr. are negotiating a possible buyout, has hit a nerve in New Jersey, where education politics is already in turmoil.

The state's taxpayers have revolted against a $2.8-billion tax increase passed by the legislature this summer, largely to fund court-ordered school-finance reforms. Many suburban school officials, moreover, are bitterly critical of the reform plan's massive redistribution ofaid from wealthy to urban school systems. (See Education Week, Oct. 10, 1990.)

"I think there is evidence that people are becoming more cognizant of the problem" posed by the tenure law, said Assemblywoman Barbara F. Kalik, a Willingboro Democrat who has tried without success for 13 years to push legislation eliminating the job guarantees. "There may be growing interest in that particular piece of legislation," she said.

But observers caution that eliminating superintendents' tenure, which was instituted in 1906, could be a virtually impossible task politically. Both the New Jersey Association of School Administrators and the New Jersey Education Association are opposed to repealing the tenure law.

James A. Moran, executive director of the N.J.A.S.A., argues in a nine-page position paper that "ten as valid today as when it was originated," in a time of political bossism.

Mr. Moran attributes the current interest in changing the state's tenure laws to "the insecurity and emotion of our time," noting that "the field of education in New Jersey today is probably more emotionally laden than at any other time in our history."

The N.J.E.A. views any change in the tenure law as a possible encroachment on teachers' job protections, according to a spokesman, and thus will oppose efforts to eliminate superintendents' tenure.

Under the law, superintendents hired from outside a school district have tenure after they have been on the job for three years. Those named to the superintendency from another position in the same district have tenure after two years.

State law provides that tenured school employees can be dismissed from their jobs only for "inefficiency, incapacity, unbecoming conduct, or other just cause." School districts must file "tenure charges" if they want to dismiss a tenured employee and then go through a lengthy and expensive court proceeding.

Advocates of abolishing tenure for superintendents say that a distinction should be made between giving tenure to employees who carry out policy--such as teachers and principals--and to those who make it.

"The tenure of administrators, period, is a terrible, terrible burden that someone perpetrated on the taxpayers," said Sidney Hicks, president of the Trenton school board. "Once you get into a tenured position, you almost have to commit a criminal act to be removed."

Mr. Hicks declined to discuss the reasons for the Trenton board's dissatisfaction with its superintendent.

But he added that the current tenure system "holds many boards hostage" because school systems can deteriorate while boards try to make cases against their superintendents.

Some districts instead do not try either to mount legal cases against their superintendents or to buy them out, Ms. Kalik said.

"They find other ways" of getting rid of superintendents, she said, "like not giving them raises or making life miserable for them, hoping they will move on."

Ms. Kalik's bill would remove tenure for superintendents and principals in small districts who also function as superintendents. Instead, top school officials would be given renewable employment contracts, she explained.

Another Assembly bill would give high-level school officials three- to five-year contracts, according to James Harkness, a Republican aide to the Assembly Education Committee.

In the past, bills calling for major changes in the tenure law have died quietly. But this year, there is some indication that lawmakers' relucto touch the issue may be changing.

Assemblyman Gerard S. Naples, chairman of the Education Committee and also a Trenton school official, said last week that Ms. Kalik's bill "will not be dead on arrival" as previous bills have been. He promised to give the bill a fair hearing.

"She will have her proverbial day in court," Mr. Naples said. "How I will vote personally, I don't know."

Mr. Naples, a Democrat who until recently served as principal of a Trenton school, said he does not believe that superintendents ever should have been granted tenure. The issue, he said, is "would it be wrong to take it away from them at this juncture?"

In considering eliminating the long-standing job protection, the assemblyman added, legislators would have to decide whether to "grandfather in" superintendents who are already serving, create some kind of ''grace period" before the change would take effect, or simply remove tenure for all superintendents.

"I expect tremendous pressure to be exacted on me in the next few weeks," he said, adding that abolishing tenure for superintendents was "the topic of conversation everywhere I went" over a recent weekend of public appearances.

Mr. Moran of the N.J.A.S.A. writes in his position paper that the real problem with the tenure law appears to be the ambiguity of the terms "efficiency" and "inefficiency" against which tenured employees are judged. He pledges that his organization will work with the school-boards association to define objectively the terms and create ways to measure them, in addition to possibly identifying "other just causes'' that could be used to remove tenured employees.

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