So the messenger was shot. Is the message dead?
Gloucester County residents and educators were heard. They're furious about property taxes, but not so mad that they'd risk losing the devil they know. They love their locally controlled school districts despite the costs.
So now that a bill that would have let counties consider consolidation is history, will people stop complaining that 616 top-heavy school districts are about 600 too many, given the expense?
Consider Salem County, where the leader of one of the smallest educational empires in the state lives large.
William Adams is superintendent of Salem County Vocational Technical Schools.
He oversees 38 teachers, 37 support staff, and an $11 million budget. The district has just 592 full- and part-time high schoolers in the vocational school and 52 at a regional day school for the disabled.
For that, Adams pocketed $246,950 in 2004-05, while classroom aides whose job includes changing disabled teens' diapers started at $7.50 an hour with no benefits.
This is the great state of education we're desperate to preserve?
To put Adams' compensation in perspective, consider that Paul Vallas is paid a $250,000 base salary to run the Philadelphia School District, where he oversees 178,000 students, nearly 11,000 teachers, and a $2 billion budget. (Vallas also can get up to $150,000 in bonuses this year.)
I'm a little surprised the folks at the New Jersey Education Association are still talking to me, since they're cool to the idea of school consolidation and I've said that if it can lower taxes, it's an experiment worth trying. But it's a testament to union leaders' anger at Adams that they see him as a symbol of what's wrong with the same system they don't think needs fixing.
Labor is battling Adams over staff salary and high turnover, saying he keeps control through fear. Contract talks are ongoing.
"He's essentially a lord of the manor keeping the serfs at a low wage," NJEA communications director Steve Wollmer alleges.
Adams appeared in the 2006 State Commission of Investigation report "Taxpayers Beware: What You Don't Know Can Cost You - An Inquiry Into Questionable and Hidden Compensation for Public School Administrators." The report was rife with revelations about school boards lavishing superintendents with cars, clothing allowances, retirement plans, and cash well beyond their base pay.
On paper, Adams earned $179,830 in 2004-05, the year the SCI reviewed. Actually, he pulled in $246,950 - 37 percent more, records show.
The perks included cashing in $56,197 worth of unused leave, a $17,983 annuity payment, $9,216 in pension reimbursements, and $507 in insurance.
Adams spent only $1,200 of $2,500 allotted for fashion. Must be a bargain shopper.
To his credit, Adams doesn't duck my questions. He defends his haul, noting that if he had received 3.5 percent annual raises over three decades on the job, he'd be due $100,000 more a year in pay.
"There's no question that if you look at it in a vacuum . . . that's a lot of money for the kids served," Adams says. Taken in the larger context of all his duties, "in my opinion, it's a bargain."
One of Adams' critics, Phil Donohue of Alloway, disagrees.
"I'm just astounded that someone in my county makes that much in education," says Donohue, a teacher in the Philadelphia public schools.
Christine Baum teaches at Salem's school for the disabled, where accidents involving urine and vomit are common. She remembers a recent day when the school's lone custodian was called away to clean up his car.
Guess the SCI missed that one.
Adams confirms that he drives for free, explaining he has the "use of a car," but was not "given a car."
Either way, he says, the sniping seems more about contentious contract negotiations than school consolidation.
"There's no question the property-tax problem is significant," Adams says. "I don't think looking at administrative salaries themselves is the solution."