May 31 (Bloomberg) -- New Jersey’s Essex County College paid $680 to relocate the incoming president’s pet. The state’s Brookdale Community College reimbursed the now-retired president $41,000 for his childrens’ university tuition.
Governing boards at New Jersey’s community colleges agreed to augment presidents’ salaries with those perks in recent years, along with housing allowances, country-club memberships and airfare for spouses to travel to conventions, according to a report yesterday by state Comptroller Matthew Boxer. They also paid for country-club memberships and automobiles.
Governor Chris Christie yesterday called the findings “disturbing” and ordered an investigation. New Jersey’s two-year colleges, which serve all 21 counties, market themselves as an affordable way for 260,000 students to fulfill core requirements and transfer credits to four-year universities.
“It’s not fair to the tuition-payers and their families, and it’s not fair to the taxpayers who subsidize at the county level and the state level the operations of county colleges,” Christie, 49, a first-term Republican, told reporters in Trenton when asked about the report.
Christie said he told Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks to conduct a “thorough review and investigation” of the compensation packages. A majority of the colleges’ voting board members are appointed by county governments.
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 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.
In three cases, community colleges paid annual base salaries that exceeded $300,000, according to the report.
Twelve of the institutions covered housing costs as high as $3,500 a month, according to the report. The president of Bergen County Community College used the school credit card to charge $16,600 in 2010 for meals, liquor and entertainment. Thirteen executive contracts contained housing allowances that averaged $1,746 per month, Boxer’s report said.
“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.”
‘Very Difficult Jobs’
Norma Kent, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based American Association of Community Colleges, said compensation is typically is set when a president’s contract gets approved by the governing board.
“Most community-college presidents have fairly standard benefits considering the very difficult jobs they are tasked to do,” Kent said in an e-mail.
Lawrence Nespoli, president of the Council of County Colleges, a Trenton-based lobbying group, didn’t immediately return a message.
The audit was issued as New Jersey suffers fiscal stress. State government’s revenue may trail 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.
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.
“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 yesterday in Trenton.
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.
The president of Essex County College in Newark, Edythe Abdullah, 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.
The pay and housing allowance for Abdullah is comparable to that of her counterparts, according to Reginald T. Jackson, chairman of the school’s trustees.
“Most of the use of the car is from college businesses,” Jackson said in a phone interview yesterday. “It’s not an extravagance. Dr. Abdullah -- we brought her here from Florida. She needed some place to live. Some colleges provide a house for the president. County College does not.”
Joseph Cavaluzzi, a spokesman for Bergen Community College, said by phone yesterday that the school made changes to compensation with the appointment of Jose Adames as interim president in July 2011. The chief executive’s expense account was cut in half, to $25,000, and the college no longer allows the president to entertain trustees or purchase alcoholic drinks for daytime meals.
Brookdale President Peter Burnham resigned in March 2011 after county officials questioned his perks, including the money for his childrens’ 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 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.
Avis McMillon, a spokeswoman for Brookdale, didn’t return telephone calls for comment.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at email@example.com