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Cerf to Lose Two Top Aides -- Deputy Commissioner and Chief of Staff

Departure comes when education department is starting to enjoy some stability.

Credit: Amanda Brown
Education Commissioner Chris Cerf

Just as education commissioner Chris Cerf is settling into his title, if not the job itself, two of his top lieutenants are leaving his side at the department.

Last week, Andrew Smarick announced he would be leaving the post of deputy commissioner to return to Washington, D.C., and the world of advocacy and think tanks that he left to come to New Jersey two years ago.

Yesterday, David Hespe said he will be depart as Cerf’s chief of staff to become president of Burlington County College. Hespe, himself a former state commissioner from a decade ago, said it was a position he could not pass up.

“This is a dream job for me, and every now and then dream jobs come true,” Hespe said of the community college presidency.

The turnover at the top of the high-profile department comes at a time when it appeared Cerf could enjoy some stability on the job, with almost all of his top positions filled and his own finally confirmed by the state Senate after a long parliamentary drama.

Smarick and Hespe have also been key players, the former providing some of the philosophical underpinning of the administration’s reform agenda; the latter, the logistical hub of day-to-day management.

“When you go through all the major initiatives that this administration is going through, these are two big positions to lose,” said Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.

“David [Hespe] was really the glue who held everything together, and it will be interesting to see who the commissioner brings in to replace him,” he said.

With 15 months left in Gov. Chris Christie’s term, it is not entirely certain if Cerf will bring anyone new in. Efforts to reach the commissioner yesterday were unsuccessful, and his office released a statement that he would be reviewing the department’s organization. He only last year completed the last reorganization.

“The commissioner is taking a look at the roles and responsibilities of his senior staff members in order to determine what the needs of the organization are going to be moving forward,” said Barbara Morgan, Cerf’s press secretary.

Chief of Staff David Hespe

Hespe said there were plenty of talented people already in the department. “Turnover is always part of the job as commissioner, but Chris has brought in some tremendous talent who can easily move up,” he said.

Although in the chief of staff position for only a year, Hespe had been considered one of the anchors in the department due to his past stint as commissioner, as well as an aide and counsel in the Statehouse.

Cerf himself is a transplant from the New York City public school system, where he was a deputy chancellor, and Hespe was seen as someone who knew the rhythms and rituals of New Jersey public education and its stakeholders.

Hespe was given a couple of high-profile assignments as well, chairing two task forces to help develop key policy on high school graduation standards and ease bureaucratic red tape binding schools.

The first task force released its report earlier this year. The second report has been done for months but has yet to be released.

“I’m telling you, it’s coming out soon,” Hespe said yesterday. “And it will be a major achievement in reviewing the relationship between the state and the local districts.”

Smarick came to the department from outside New Jersey, actually brought in by Cerf’s predecessor, Bret Schundler, and was rumored at one point to take Schundler's spot after he was fired by Christie in 2010.

Instead, he settled into a deputy role and was said to play a key part in some of the state’s broader initiatives, including the state’s ultimately successful federal Race to the Top grant and its application for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

But he also brought some controversy. He was outspoken in his calls for aggressive reforms for failing schools, including outright closures. That has been one of the most contested pieces of Christie’s education agenda, and Smarick was often a lightning rod for criticism.

Bozza said he grew to work well with Smarick.

“The more I worked with him, as well as the others brought in from the outside, I found they realized more and more the difficulties of some of these challenges and the real impact of them,” Bozza said.

“Andy is a very positive and upbeat guy, and I found him always open and willing to listen,” he added.

Smarick, whose departure was announced at the state Board of Education meeting last week, will be moving back to the Washington, D.C., area to work as a consultant for Bellwether Education Partners.

Bellwether is a nonprofit group that provides consulting and leadership help in the area of urban education. It is led by, among others, Andrew Rotherham, a well-known education commentator and former White House aide under President Clinton.

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