Chris Cerf’s path to be New Jersey’s education chief may have started in a Montclair State University conference room a year ago.
It was there where a half-dozen members of the newly elected Chris Christie’s education transition team interviewed Cerf as a candidate for New Jersey commissioner. Montclair State University President Susan Cole led the transition team, and the interviews were held in her conference room.
According to two people in the group, as well as others, Cerf -- fresh from being deputy schools chancellor in New York City -- was not only one of three recommended finalists, but the first choice of several in the room.
A number of factors led Christie to ultimately tap Bret Schundler instead, and Cerf went on to become CEO of Sangari Global Education, a science and math technology company.
But a combination of Cerf’s experience and that interview a year ago instantly put him back on what this time was a very short list of candidates to be Schundler’s successor.
Christie is expected to formally introduce Cerf today as his nominee to be the next commissioner of education. The appointment still needs confirmation by the state Senate.
"It was his broad experience and his knowledge of New Jersey,” said one member of the interview team, speaking anonymously, since members are not authorized to disclose the team’s deliberations. "He just was ahead of the game for a lot of us."
The committee ultimately sent three names to the governor, and Cerf was one of them. Schundler was also on the list, as was Richard Bozza, executive director of the administrator’s association.
"I know several people who had Cerf in the one hole," the committee member said.
Another member, also speaking anonymously, agreed that Cerf’s resume and experience in New York City made him an instant favorite. That resume includes being a high school history teacher, law clerk to former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and president of Edison Schools Inc., the for-profit education management company.
But there were also questions then -- and some now -- to his adherence to some of Christie’s bolder initiatives, especially concerning private school vouchers. Cerf is a big charter school supporter and serves on the board of the TEAM Academy in Newark, but he has not been known as an outspoken advocate for school vouchers.
"He hadn’t been that familiar with what Chris Christie had talked about in his campaign, and wasn’t as well-prepared," said the second member. "I think the difference now is he has probably done his homework."
But the topic came up again in discussions inside the administration this time around, said one administration official, and Cerf assuaged any skepticism that he wouldn’t carry the flag on the full agenda.
Among the more immediate issues is the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA), a Christie-backed bill that would create a voucher-like system funded through corporate tax credits.
"He spoke to us more about vouchers in political terms, and whether it was worth the capital," said the official, who asked to remain anonymous since the nomination is not yet official. "But when it came to OSA, that was OK. There was no problem with that."
Cerf on Sunday declined to comment for this story or any specifics of Christie’s education agenda. While he has done interviews about his experience and general positions, he has yet to even confirm he has been chosen for the job.
The administration official said part of the discussion lately was also what kind of freedom Cerf would have in bringing in his own people to the state Department of Education. The department has been decimated over the past year, with only two assistant commissioners left.
“He’s got a very free hand,” said the official. “It’s not like there are a lot of people left there to replace.”
Still, one uncertainty will be what happens to assistant commissioner Rochelle Hendricks, who served as acting commissioner since Schundler was fired and was widely considered the other favorite for the post. Another is Andrew Smarick, a special assistant in the department who Schundler brought in to be his deputy.
Overall, the administration official said he did not expect Cerf’s choice would change many specifics in Christie’s plans, although maybe put immediate focus back on Newark, where Cerf had been an education advisor to Mayor Cory Booker. Newark is the one area where Cerf already brings extensive knowledge and background, the official said.
But an area that will be a steeper learning curve will be in Cerf’s relationships with the legislature, new ground for the next commissioner.
"Frankly, a lot of what we want to do will require statutory authority," the official said. "He will have to be engaged in that, and it will take a little time."