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In the Wake of Schundler’s Ouster, Questions Arise in Classrooms and in Trenton

With the education commissioner’s job vacant, there’s even more uncertainty for teachers and educators at the start of another school year.

Credit: NJ Spotlight
Gov. Chris Christie and former state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler in happier days, speaking at a Berkeley Heights press conference in February.

As teachers at Northern Highlands Regional High School prepared to return to class this week, the news began circulating among them by email: on Friday state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler had been fired by Gov. Chris Christie.

“It was ‘wow’,” said Maryan Woods-Murphy, a Spanish teacher at the Allendale high school and New Jersey’s teacher of the year in 2009-2010.

“It’s not like we’re all holed up in our classrooms and just worried about a new curriculum and things like that, although we are thinking about that, too,” she said. “We’re all on the edge of our seats wondering what’s going to happen next.”

It’s been that kind of mood among many New Jersey teachers and administrators in the waning days of the summer break, as they mind the final details before students return while witnessing New Jersey’s education establishment shake and rattle like never before.

A Different Level of Uncertainty

What happens in Trenton doesn’t always have an immediate impact down into the schools and classrooms, but educators said this shakeup seem different for both its back-to-school timing and the context of a year that was already in tumult due to strained budgets and state aid cuts.

“We’re going into school right now, and atmosphere counts,” Woods-Murphy said. “But it feels like the ground is moving, when what we really want at this time is some security.”

Christie ousted Schundler on Friday over disagreements to what and who was to blame in New Jersey’s narrow defeat for $399 million in federal Race to the Top money, leaving the state Department of Education in flux, if not chaos.

Naming a Successor

How that directly impacts schools will in large part depend on who replaces Schundler and what, if any, changes he or she brings to the department, its operations and its policies.

On a daily basis, much of the interaction that schools have with the state are through the steady stream of memos and directives coming from Trenton or the department’s county offices.

While the political storm brewed over the Race to the Top application last week, memos went to districts with a facilities checklist of school opening and guidelines for new security drills.

“Enjoy the remainder of your summer and best wishes for a successful school year,” one memo closed.

But already, the Christie administration has put as big a stamp on education policy in this state as any governor of the last two decades, led by the budget cuts but also hard pushes at school reforms and spending caps. His frequent battle with New Jersey Education Association has only added to the tensions inside schools.

A Shared Philosophy

“He hired in Schundler someone with his same philosophy, and I’m sure whoever he hires next will be pressing the same things,” said James O’Neill, superintendent of Chathams’ schools.

But O’Neill and others said the commissioner and his or her leadership matter in how those policies are carried out, and to schools, Schundler’s role was particularly critical in a number of ways.

To the detriment of Schundler’s standing with districts -- and played out by his ouster -- was his too-frequent conflicts with the governor, some administrators said. The two had clashed before on several occasions, including Schundler’s outreach to the NJEA on the Race to the Top application, ultimately rebuffed by the governor.

The Inner Circle

“It would seem the commissioner was never in the inner circle, and not knowing who the commissioner was speaking for made a big difference,” said Robert Copeland, superintendent of Piscataway schools. “Even if you disagree with him, it helps to know he has the ear of the governor, and clearly he didn’t.”

Also, a major question facing schools right now is how or if the state’s school funding formula will survive through the financial crisis, and Schundler appeared to be taking a bigger lead in that.

A big test is coming up with the latest court challenge to the Christie administration’s cuts under the Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings. In the meantime, Schundler had convened meetings to look at the models offered by high-achieving districts that spend less than the norms.

“It seemed the administration was making a detour from the funding formula, and that could have a big impact,” Copeland said. “And while clearly driven by the governor, the mechanics of it comes from the commissioner and the department of education.”

Still, the department itself was already in some flux, even before the latest shakeup, with several key positions unfilled after eight months, including at least two assistant commissioners, one of them for finance. Ironically, several people said maybe now there will be some stability on that front.

Another key vacancy was chief of staff, interestingly one of the two appointments that Christie announced on Friday after firing Schundler. He appointed on a temporary basis his policy director, Gregg Edwards. He also announced assistant commissioner Rochelle Hendricks as acting commissioner.

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