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The Man with the Plan . . . to Reorganize the Department of Education

Four new assistant commissioners -- and a notable chief of staff -- will help acting Commissioner Cerf ensure that NJ's kids are "college- and career-ready."

Six months into office acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf has begun filling out his department with a mix of out-of-state transplants and New Jersey veterans, including former commissioner David Hespe.

Cerf yesterday announced a new organizational chart for the 700-employee department, actually a series of charts that he said will better align the Department of Education with his priorities. Central will be four new assistant commissioners focusing on broader state policy: Chief Academic Officer, Chief Performance Officer, Chief Talent Officer and Chief Innovation Officer.

"This represents a very different and very new organization for the department, and I think it will serve us very well in reaching our No. 1 goal of increasing the number of children who are college- and career-ready," Cerf said yesterday.

But as much as the organizational structure was talked about, the whispers had more to do with who will fill the jobs in a department that has been decimated in recent months. Three of the four new assistant posts are not yet filled, but there were some notable names put forward, starting with Hespe, who will be Cerf’s chief of staff.

Commissioner from 1999-2001, Hespe is a consummate insider who also has worked a variety of state and local posts. He is a Republican well regarded by Democrats, and one seen as helping provide New Jersey experience and insight for the new commissioner, a former New York City schools deputy chancellor.

What's more, Hespe was recently named by Gov. Chris Christie to head a task force looking at education mandates and red-tape. He had even been mentioned as a candidate for Cerf’s job last winter, following Christie's firing of former Commissioner Bret Schundler.

"He’s a very talented guy," Cerf said of Hespe yesterday, "and I’m thrilled he’s come back to fill this critical function."

Indeed, the chief of staff position has been bolstered. It now includes overseeing many of the day-to-day operations in finance, legislative affairs, and student services.

"Every commissioner uses their chief of staff in different ways," Hespe said last night. "This is folding into a direct line of responsibility in ways I think I can be usefuI. I know the department, I know the terrain."

Key Appointments

Other key appointments included Andrew Smarick as Cerf’s new deputy commissioner, a move that was a turnabout from almost a year ago, when Smarick’s name was first forwarded for the job.

Smarick, a noted commentator with a conservative think-tank in Washington, D.C., was actually brought in by Schundler during his brief tenure and been slated to be deputy commissioner then.

But Schundler got fired over the state's failed Race to the Top application, and when Smarick’s name was ultimately put forward to be deputy and maybe succeed Schundler, the state Board of Education balked. Some members said at the time that it was due to Smarick’s lack of experience and education credentials.

Smarik remained as special assistant to Cerf, and this time, the board went along with the appointment, approving Smarick along with all the other appointments. Board president Arcelio Aponte said it was more a matter of timing.

"He was fairly unknown then, and at the time we had no commissioner," Aponte said after the meeting. "We really didn’t know anything about him, and felt anybody new we did bring in would want his or her own leadership team."

Smarick is one of several people from outside New Jersey joining Cerf’s new team, with a couple more coming from New York City school system where Cerf worked. Among them is a new communications officer, Justin Barra, who previously worked in the New York City education department and before that the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter school network.

For a new role heading an Office of Project management, Cerf brought in James Palmer, a former official in the Delaware state education department who was described as integral in that state winning one of the first Race to the Top awards.

Still, among the balance of 16 direct appointments, a majority were department veterans who Cerf has retained with new titles, including assistant commissioners Barbara Gantwerk (programs and operations) and David Corso (administration and finance).

Another notable promotion was Bari Erlichson, who was a director of the office of data under former commissioner Lucille Davy and now will be in one of the top positions as chief performance officer. This post will oversee data collection, but Cerf said will be an "absolutely world-class research function" that will inform policy.

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