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N.J. Two-Year Colleges Paid for Presidents’ Cars, Golf

New Jersey community colleges padded their presidents’ compensation with perks, including housing allowances, country-club memberships and airfare for spouses to travel to conventions, Comptroller Matthew Boxer said.

Three of the 19 community colleges paid their presidents more than $300,000 a year, and 12 covered housing costs as high as $3,500 a month, according to a report from Boxer’s office. Brookdale Community College reimbursed its president more than $41,000 in 2010 for the cost to send his children to four universities, while Bergen County College’s boss charged the school credit card $16,600 that year for meals, liquor and entertainment.

Boxer began reviewing executive pay at the schools last year after newspaper reports about such arrangements led to the resignations of presidents at Brookdale and Gloucester County College. New Jersey’s two-year colleges, which serve all 21 counties, market themselves as affordable gateways, allowing 260,000 students to fulfill core requirements and transfer credits to four-year universities.

“There are huge disparities in not only the salaries of community-college presidents, but other forms of their compensation as well,” Boxer said in a statement. “We’re not suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach, but it’s appropriate to set boundaries when schools are spending taxpayer dollars.”

State Aid

New Jersey community colleges received $1.4 billion in revenue in 2010, with tuition and student fees accounting for 31 percent. State, county and local grants and appropriations made up 37 percent, according to the report.

The state government’s revenue may trail Governor Chris Christie’s projections by as much as $1.3 billion through June 2013, David Rosen, the Legislature’s chief budget analyst, said May 23. Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff said the two-year shortfall is $676 million.

The numbers prompted Christie, a 49-year-old Republican midway through his first term, to reverse a “pay-as-you-go” plan for funding $1.6 billion in transportation spending for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The state instead will remove $260 million in cash funding from that budget and apply it to operations, then issue bonds for that amount for road work.

“When we’re fighting to try and justify to the public a greater investment in higher education, you have peoples’ country club memberships being paid for by tuition or tax dollars at county colleges,” Christie said at a news conference today in Trenton. “That’s disturbing.”

Scholarships Cut

Every year, the schools’ lobbyists appeal to legislators not to cut funding, particularly a state-paid scholarship for top high-school graduates that pays tuition for as many as five semesters. Christie signed legislation May 3 that preserves the program, called NJ STARS, with $13.8 million, a 16 percent decrease from current funding.

The average total payments to New Jersey’s community-college presidents exceeded $250,000 in 2010, Boxer’s audit found. The largest amount, $441,000, went to the then-president of Union County College, who was on sabbatical that year. While he received full pay and benefits, the college concurrently paid another person to perform his duties, Boxer said.

Brookdale, in Lincroft, paid $27,382 for tuition for the president’s children in 2010, and an additional $13,375 to cover the income-tax liability related to those reimbursements, Boxer’s office found.

Luxury Car

The president of Essex County College in Newark had the largest base salary, $245,250, plus a $3,500 monthly housing allowance and unlimited use of a Lincoln MKZ luxury sedan. The school, with the sixth-largest enrollment among the community colleges, also paid more than $20,000 for her to move from Florida, and covered more than $20,000 in other expenses, including $3,500 in mobile phone bills.

Avis McMillon, a spokeswoman for Brookdale, didn’t return telephone calls for comment, and Marsha McCarthy, a spokeswoman for Essex, said in an e-mail that the president wasn’t available to comment. Lawrence Nespoli, president of the Council of County Colleges, a Trenton-based lobbying group, didn’t immediately return a message.

Brookdale President Peter Burnham resigned in March 2011 after county officials questioned his perks, including the money for his kids’ college. Burnham was paid a $216,000 salary, and his total compensation was more than $300,000, according to Boxer’s report.

Boxer found that Brookdale paid more than $11,000 in dues and other fees for its president’s membership to a local country club in 2010. That school also paid $10,574 for his lodging expenses, including $900 for five stays at a hotel that was about 90 minutes from the Brookdale campus. College officials were unable to explain why the president needed to stay at this hotel, according to Boxer’s report.

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