On appeal from the Commissioner, New Jersey Department of Education, Docket Nos. 708-12/10 and 709-12/10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges A. A. Rodriguez and Ashrafi.
On January 13, 2011, the Acting Commissioner of Education adopted amendments to N.J.A.C. 6A:23A-1.2 and -3.1 placing caps on salary and other compensation that public school districts can pay to superintendents.
In these two appeals, which we decide in a single opinion, the Superintendent of Westfield Public Schools, Margaret Dolan, (A-2470-10) and the Westfield Board of Education ("the Board") (A-2710-10) appeal from the final decision of an Assistant Commissioner of Education dated January 7, 2011, dismissing their emergent applications for relief. By those emergent applications, Dolan and the Board sought administrative review of a decision of the then Executive County Superintendent of Schools for Union County, Carmen Centuolo, voiding a new long-term contract of employment entered into between Dolan and the Board shortly before the effective date of the new regulations, February 7, 2011.
The Assistant Commissioner of Education dismissed the emergent applications on the ground that the Department of Education lacked jurisdiction over the matter. The Assistant Commissioner concluded that a memorandum dated November 15, 2010, from the Acting Commissioner of Education to all Executive County Superintendents already decided legal issues raised by the emergent applications and that appellants' only recourse was to appeal to this court pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:6-9.1 and Rule 2:2-3(a)(2) of the Rules Governing the Courts of the State of New Jersey.
We disagree that the Acting Commissioner's November 15, 2010 memorandum constitutes a final decision on all issues presented by the applications for emergent relief. We conclude that the Department of Education has primary jurisdiction over the dispute raised by the emergent applications, namely, whether the new contract between Dolan and the Board was lawfully approved and executed before the effective date of the salary caps. We reverse and remand to the Acting Commissioner of Education to adjudicate the emergent applications.
Margaret Dolan, Ed.D., has been the superintendent of Westfield Public Schools since 2007. At issue in these appeals is her new five-year contract approved by the Board on November 9, 2010. The contract grants Dolan compensation exceeding the caps placed on superintendents' compensation effective as of February 7, 2011. Dolan and the Board claim that the new contract was lawfully approved and executed before the regulations imposing caps went into effect and the contract must therefore be honored. On December 2, 2010, Executive County Superintendent Centuolo ordered that the contract be voided, apparently based on the Acting Commissioner's November 15, 2010 memorandum directing all Executive County Superintendents not to approve new contracts until the new regulations went into effect.
The context of the dispute presented in these appeals was recounted by our Supreme Court in New Jersey Association of School Administrators v. Schundler, ___ N.J. ___, ___ (2012) (slip op. at 1-8). To summarize, beginning in 2007, the Legislature sought to lower property taxes by enacting new laws that limit the amount of compensation local school boards may pay to high-level administrators. The Department of Education adopted regulatory measures to implement the new laws. In July 2010, Governor Christie announced his administration's intention to propose and adopt additional regulations, in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act, N.J.S.A. 52:14B-1 to -15, to cap the compensation payable to superintendents and other administrators.
At that time, Dolan's existing contract with the Board ran from September 1, 2007, through June 30, 2011. The Board was required to give Dolan notice of its intent not to renew her employment by June 30, 2010, a year before the end date of the existing contract. In the spring of 2010, the Board determined that it intended to continue Dolan's employment. During the summer of 2010, the Board and Dolan negotiated the terms of a new contract.
Dolan and the Board reached agreement on a new contract in early fall 2010. The contract would rescind the existing contract and instead run Dolan's new term as superintendent from November 9, 2010, to June 30, 2015, a few months short of five years.*fn1 The contract provided for salaries starting at $195,718 in 2010-2011 and increasing to at least $203,625 in 2014-2015.
Additional increases would be conditioned on the local tax levy at the relevant time. The proposed salaries exceeded the maximum annual salary under the anticipated new regulations, which would be ...