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For David Hespe, Return to Trenton Brings New and Old Challenges

As former commissioner, Cerf's new chief of staff knows firsthand the value of patience and perseverance.

Chief of Staff David Hespe

When David Hespe was New Jersey's education commissioner under Gov. Christie Whitman a decade ago, he spoke in one of his early interviews about the need for New Jersey to improve how it intervenes -- and doesn't intervene -- in public schools.

Now, Hespe is acting commissioner Chris Cerf's chief of staff, the commissioner's man to get things done.

And in one of his early interviews in his new job, Hespe is talking about the need to improve how New Jersey intervenes -- and doesn't intervene -- in public schools.

Such is the pace of change when it comes to education reform in any state, and it is Hespe's experience, patience and perseverance that Cerf has enlisted to break through some of the logjams.

Known for his smarts and savvy as a long-time Statehouse insider, Hespe has so far gotten good reviews in bringing some clarity and purpose to an often-controversial reform agenda that has sometimes been long on sound bytes and short on substance.

But at his three-month mark, he is the first to admit that he has just begun. And his more recent experience as a district superintendent in Willingboro has brought its own recognition of the challenges that await.

"This is very difficult work, and really takes a school-by-school approach," he said "And it takes developing a plan and really making sure it is implemented."

Achieving Student Achievement

In some ways, not much has changed from his days in the commissioner's office, he continued, with perpetual hopes to lift student achievement the common thread.

"What will make that happen?" Hespe said yesterday. "It was a problem 10 years ago, and it's a problem now."

So far, those who work with Hespe in and out of the department speak well of him, even when they don't always agree with his boss's policies.

"Dave is balanced, deliberative, and straightforwardly honest," said Lynne Strickland, head of the Garden State Coalition of Schools who has worked with Hespe off and on for more than a decade.

"He's an all-around good guy who has the tools to be very effective, while being well-liked by those who work for him," she said. "And that's important at the DOE these days."

Hespe's latest work has included leading a task force to look at ways the state can help districts by refining and freeing them up from statutory and regulatory mandates.

Streamlining the State

Appointed by Gov. Chris Christie before he was named Cerf's chief of staff, Hespe and the task force issued its preliminary report last month, with suggestions for streamlining the state's monitoring process and the oversight under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The group is in the midst of finishing its recommendations. Public hearings were held in Camden and Paramus this week to hear comments from districts and citizens.

He said the final report will include specific recommendations and language for changes in law and regulations by the legislature, the state Board of Education, and the department itself.

"In order for this to have legs, it will be important for the different bodies to act on it," he said. "Once written, we hope to make a compelling case."

But he said the tougher work is how the department itself is changing, with Cerf reorganizing offices and divisions to be more coordinated and targeted -- a reorganization that Hespe has to orchestrate with at least 100 fewer people than he had a decade ago.

"It really comes back to whether we are doing the things that matter," he said. "If so, then the capacity will be there."

For instance, the department will turn much of its attention to the lowest-performing schools. These got plenty of attention in the past but often from four or five different initiatives.

"It was always a question of whether all were working together or at odds," Hespe said. "We might have had four or five places of contact with a school. Not only might that lead to something very disjointed but also very episodic."

Hespe said it has been rewarding work so far, even if he is not the corner office any more. In his new role, the 51-year-old Montgomery resident's salary is $138,500 a year, just shy of the commissioner's capped pay of $141,000.

"This is the most meaningful time in my career," he said. "There is so much we can do."

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